The Paradox of Prayer

James 1.5-8 (ESV)

5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.
6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.
7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord;
8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

The Paradox of Prayer (1.5-8)

Building on this foundation of faithful vs. faithless, James brings the Christian to the realm of prayer. Introduced is the second paradox: prayer without faith. Later in James (5.15), he will talk about the “prayer of faith” but first he addresses a faithless pray-er.

Ask Who? The Giving God (v.5). James says Christians (“you” Christians, v.5) ask God if we lack wisdom. In other words, wisdom is not developed but requested. Certainly the Jewish mind would instantly spring to Solomon who himself asked God for wisdom in how to govern the people of God (1 Kings 3.5-9, esp. v.9). It is in that context that we find a definition of what is wisdom: a mind of understanding and the ability to discern good from evil. God is “the giving God” (Gk. tou didontos theou). We ask of God on a regular basis (present tense) and He hears and “gives generously…without reproach” to all His children (who “ask in faith,” v.6). God’s undivided, single-minded intent as well as His benevolence free from reminding His children of past failures are highlighted in these terms.

Truly, this wisdom is needed if we would see the value of the various trials that come upon us. The world looks upon this joy in trials as sacred sadomasochism; the Christian who has asked for and received wisdom from God can understand the great value of a faith tried and triumphant in trials. To get this point across, James points the Christian back to the preaching of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: “Ask, and it will be given to you” (Matt 7.7a). James in addressing specifically the need for wisdom says, “Amen!” God will give it for He is the giving God.

Ask How? The Convicted Christian (v.6, 8). James says we are to “ask in faith, with no doubting.” So we must be convicted of something. What that thing is debated by scholars. Some say it is the conviction of God hearing His child. Other say it is the conviction that God will answer. We might sum those previous two up as conviction in the promises of God (God hears and answers). Still others say it is the conviction of God’s very existence. So what is it?

Perhaps this speaks to all of these. In 1 Kings 18.20ff, there is the account of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Elijah asks the people a question: “How long will you go limping (or wavering) between two different opinions?” That’s the idea here in James. Wavering between belief in God and unbelief in God. Wavering between believing that God hears and God not hearing. Wavering between God answering and not answering. James is indicting his readers about “wavering” (KJV) between two differing opinions about the character and nature of God. This is double-mindedness and instability (v.8).

James also illustrates what it is like when a Christian is doubtful: this wavering person is pictured as being a wave in the ocean “driven and tossed by the wind.” The idea is of the constant changing and shifting of the water, ever in motion and never firm. Here is the one who doubts in prayer. His soul is turbulent. His mind is torn asunder. In fact, he is literally “double-souled” (v.8, double-minded), trying to balance on the fence between faith and unbelief. This instability spills over into “all his ways,” that is, his whole life is consumed with doubt. He is left clinging with one hand to earth and heaven with the other, yet he can have only one.

How many double-souled Christians occupy a pew every Sunday? They are trying to live their lives facing in two directions – toward God and toward something else. They are trying to serve two masters (cf. Matt 6.24). “Teach me your way, O LORD,/ that I may walk in your truth;/ unite my heart to fear your name” (Psalm 86.11, ESV, emphasis mine). An undivided heart is essential to asking God in faith for wisdom.

Ask Why? The Receiving Rule (v.7). The double-minded, unstable, wavering, person who does not ask in faith will not receive “anything from the Lord.” The faithless may be heard, but wisdom is not granted. And here is where the paradox is so striking: this man has enough conviction to ask for wisdom but lacks the faith to be confident in receiving his request. Faithless prayer is not rewarded. Jesus mentioned something like this – here is the man who puts his hand to the plow but looks back (see Luke 9.62). This person is unfit for the kingdom of God and unworthy to receive “anything” from the Lord Jesus, especially this gift of wisdom from the giving God. God is single-minded in giving; we must be single-minded in receiving.

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