While James’ statement might seem at first sight to be against any kind of doubt, if we look at the context of what he says we realize that the apostle is talking about a specific kind of doubt that we must shun. There are two possibilities. First, notice that James uses the expression “double minded” of the doubter, and he uses it again in the fourth chapter of his letter: “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:7). The context of this second use of the expression is clear: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore, whoever chooses to be a friend of the world renders himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).
So the first possibility is that in condemning doubting in 1:6-8, James is referring to the kind of double-mindedness that a person has who is not truly given over to God – a person who has “one foot” in his religion, but the other foot solidly planted in the world. If James is using the expression “double-minded” with the same meanings in chapter 1 and 4, then he is telling us that a “friend of the world” who is torn between two loyalties cannot expect God to answer his or her prayers. Alternately, if James is using “double-minded” in a different and more limited sense in chapter 1 – meaning someone who does not know for sure if God will answer his or her prayers – then the outcome is the same: they will not be answered.
But these are the only two meanings of doubting and double mindedness that can possibly be found in what James says in 1:6–8. Contextually, there is simply no way that this passage can be somehow expanded to mean doubts of any kind – such as intellectual doubts about the meaning of a given scripture, or as to what is God’s will in a certain situation. These kinds of doubts or uncertainties need not be seen as being somehow unchristian, and they are certainly not equivalent of disbelief.
In his excellent book In Two Minds, first published in 1976, author and social critic Os Guinness clearly explains the difference between doubt and unbelief:
"Doubt is not the opposite of faith, nor is it the same as unbelief. Doubt is a state of mind in suspension between faith and unbelief so that it is neither of them wholly and it is each only partly. This distinction is absolutely vital because it uncovers and deals with the first major misconception of doubt – the idea that in doubting a believer is betraying faith and surrendering to unbelief" (In Two Minds, page 27).
Guinness points out that failure to understand the true nature of this kind of intellectual doubt often causes great anxiety to many who experience such uncertainties, yet who are sincerely committed to God. He continues to illustrate this fact in the following way:
"The word unbelief is usually used of a willful refusal to believe or a deliberate decision to disobey. So, while doubt is a state of suspension between faith and unbelief, unbelief is a state of mind which is closed against God, an attitude of heart which disobeys God as much as it disbelieves the truth ... Doubt is not the opposite of faith, unbelief is" (pages 27,30).
We should not see doubts that are occasional or limited to small or specific areas of uncertainty as being somehow spiritually wrong, therefore. We should always address our doubts and resolve them quickly if possible, but just like temptations they are not in themselves sin – only when a temptation or doubt is acted upon does it become sinful (Romans 14:23; etc.).
We should always remember that Jesus accepted and helped the man whom he had told “All things are possible for one who believes” and who sincerely prayed “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23–24). This is in itself clear proof that James does not mean that a person with any kind of doubts cannot have answered prayer. Jesus also continued to accept and work with his disciple Thomas to move him through his doubts (John 20:24–29).
Doubts that are not based on the kind of double-mindedness that is not truly committed to God or simply cannot accept that God can or will help us are neither unbelief nor do they preclude God working with us. Such doubts are, in fact, often normal temporary uncertainties that are met and, with God’s help, eventually dispelled in the normal lifetime path of faith.