James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.
The writer, known to us as James, jumps straight in – no introduction, no warm up and just a cursory greetings – at least in the manuscripts that have been handed down to us. James writes in difficult times – the Church was new, illegal, and born into hostility with both the Roman state and the Synagogue. It had to contend with difficult times and a need to hold fast to its beliefs. We may have a rather more relaxed attitude to doubting than James seems to have had – after all we like to say that we want people to sincerely seek truth rather than condemn those who struggle to believe. Yet for James’ time people needed to firmly grasp the faith that had been given them; there was no room for people to be “driven and tossed by the sea.”
In our age we’re met, in the West at least, with indifference not persecution, ignorance not oppression. In our post Enlightenment context we value doubts as a sign of an enquiring mind – in James’ age doubt seems to have been equated with disloyalty. Since the 1960s the Church has wanted to be open to “those of goodwill” who seek to find the truth wherever it leads. How might we balance James’ words with our own contexts?
Can we honour those who find faith difficult? Can we honour ourselves when we doubt yet, at the same time, see the importance of not being blown around by every idea and ideology that comes along? Maybe we need to rethink what faith is – there’s a debate in New Testament studies about whether St Paul meant we have to have faith in Jesus in order to be saved or whether it is Jesus’ own faithfulness which saves us. I wonder, with a passage like today’s, if Jesus’ faithfulness is something we need to hold onto in the midst of the ideas and ideologies, doubts and debates that we have.
Lord Jesus, you held fast to your absolute trust in your Father despite betrayal, desertion, torture and death. Help us as we reflect, discuss, discern and even as we doubt, to follow your example – to trust in you, and your love for us, that, at the end, we and all your people might be saved. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston ministers with four churches in and around Glasgow.