I have noticed something in my prayer life that I hate. I have the tendency, and maybe you do, to pray like I have everything together. My prayers are sometimes doctrinally tight, verbally articulate, and totally hypocritical.
Christian, it’s okay to pray like you don’t have everything together. What sweetness, what preciousness, what treasure is James 1:5-8 to us:
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 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. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
The shape of this text is that of a whirlpool: it pushes, it pulls, it turns, it tilts. Do you feel swept up in this when you read it? Take one moment to sense with me the tugging and tossing of our text. It begins by comforting (“he gives generously to all”), but then terrifies (“ask with no doubting”). It invites us (“he gives generously without reproach”), but then warns us (“the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea”). It begins with the gentleness of a brook (“it will be given to him”) but then roars like a dam (“he must not suppose he will receive anything”).
For many of us, the accomplishment of this text in our souls is terror. And if we’re honest, prayer is already terrifying enough: in prayer, we are speaking to the person of God in the presence of God as an image of God that has fallen short of the glory of God.
But I don’t believe it is the Spirit’s want to terrify the believer in this text. In fact, if you spend the next two-hundred seconds of doing the hard work of understanding, I think the Spirit will accomplish the opposite in you. I think you’ll be comforted by this text. The first step towards this end is by identifying who “the one one doubts” is in our text.
I sincerely believe that “the one doubts” is not a reference to the Christian with generic doubt and sincere faith, but the non-Christian with sincere doubt and generic faith. The immediate context of James points to this: James confesses that “we all stumble in many ways.” The larger context of the Bible points to this: “if you have faith even the size of a grain of a mustard seed, you will be able to move mountains.” The one doubts is the person who prays to a generic god in generic faith with generic words.
And does this not comfort us, especially in the face of hundreds of supposed scientific tests and articles that conclude that prayer doesn’t work? Surely, these articles aren’t only washing themselves up on my facebook feed and Google searches. I googled for scientific articles on prayer, and the results that surfaced were articles with titles like Rationally Speaking, Nothing Fails Like Prayer and Prayer Flunks Test and Study Concludes Prayer Doesn’t Work. These articles can burrow into our hearts with discouragement if we don’t know our Bibles.
But James unmasks the fallacy of these experiments in our text.
Let’s think with integrity about this. These scientific experiments are conducted according to the scientific method, which begins with a hypothesis and, by a series of tests, attempts to prove the hypothesis as false. Is it plain why these tests receive zero results?
In other words, the motive of these experiments is to attempt to prove the hypothesis as false. Again, is it plain why these experiments yield nothing?
Further yet, this means that the posture of these tests is necessarily and decisively marked by a posture of doubt. In these tests, people are not measuring the effectiveness of prayer, they are measuring the effectiveness of doubt. And the results emerge exactly as James tells us they will: “that person must not suppose he will receive anything from the Lord.”
This is not how we pray. We pray with faith. Not with selfish faith: that God will obey the orders of my prayer. Not with generic faith: that there’s probably a god. But with gospel faith: a faith that is dominantly characterized by having both feet in the blood of Jesus, even if you sometimes trip, stumble, and fall. So hear this, imperfect Christian: when we ask God for wisdom by opening the mouth of our heart’s imagination in prayer, he will hear us and answer us even as we speak through one hundred dark corners in our hearts, two hundred half-uncertainties in our heads, and three-hundred fragmented doubts, so long as we hold in our souls a faith the size of a mustard seed, if that mustard seed is the fruit of the blood of Jesus Christ.
And better yet, this verse doesn’t only focus on what God gives but also on how God gives. And James teaches us that God gives “generously.” Let me write on only two implications, though there are hundreds, on God’s “generous” giving.
The word “generous” means God gives differently: The word “generous” surely means that God is not going to give predictably, but generously, and this means his gift might come in a different category. For instance, the early church might have asked God for wisdom to avoid hardship. God might have answered that prayer generously by giving them the wisdom to endure hardship. This is an answered prayer, but one from the category of “endurance” rather than “avoidance.”
Is this not more intrinsically beautiful than a god who only gives predictably? This past Christmas, I asked my wife for a pair of work pants. After a few minutes of furiously unwrapping presents, I found myself down to my last Christmas present and still no work pants. I was predicting them to be nicely folded up in the last box. But what I found wrapped in the present was something better than a pair of work pants and, in fact, in a different category altogether: a positive pregnancy test in a shadowbox. The generous giver is better than the predictable giver.
The word “generous” means God gives sovereignly: Whenever you pray, the character roles have already been cast: in every prayer, there is a giver and a recipient. When we confuse and invert the roles, we sometimes approach God like we’re the giver. As though the primary function of prayer is for us to give God good ideas about reality and for God to receive and implement those ideas into reality. We need to remember that before history existed, the roles of prayer had already been cast: prayer exists for us to grow in obedience to God, not for God to grow in obedience to us.
Is this not victoriously obvious at the foot of the cross? For hundreds of years, the people of God prayed for a political messiah. But God, answering their prayers sovereignly rather than obediently, gave us an atoning messiah. The people of God wanted a crucifying Messiah, but God gave us a crucified messiah. If God had merely obeyed the prayers of his people, we would have been given a political superstar.
And we would still be stuck in our sins.
So, pray like somebody who doesn’t have it all together, because you don’t. Pray like somebody who lacks wisdom, because you do. Pray like somebody who needs a sovereign answer, not an obedient answer. And as you seek to do so, here a few notes to help you along the way:
Read prayers like they’re your prayers: Read prayers from the prayer book: Historically, the Psalms have been the very prayers of the very people of God. Don’t merely read the Psalms, pray the Psalms with the same sincerity as if it were the product of your imagination. Read good prayer books: In times past, one of the major contributions of pastors to churches were written prayers. Get your hands on one like this.
Read prayers like they’re starting blocks: Also remember that reading prayers is not a substitute for your prayer life, it’s a supplement. When you get to the end of a written prayer, close your eyes and let it launch you into deeper, more intimate, more personal prayer with God. Reading prayers probably shouldn’t be the pool of your prayer life, but it’s a good diving board.
Watch this sermon: This article was originally preached to a local church by a local pastor. Spending a few minutes following along with this sermon might help to fatten up your prayer life.