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What Does it Mean to Be a 'Double Minded Man' in James 1:8?

What Does it Mean to Be a 'Double Minded Man' in James 1:8?

“A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” (James 1:8)

In our frenetic culture of constant busyness and distraction, having an additional mind to offload some of the content and tasks seems like a useful resource. Wouldn’t being double-minded double our efficiency and capacity? No, it does not. While most people assume that their capacity for multi-tasking increases their productivity and efficiency, the opposite is occurring. Research has demonstrated repeatedly that humans cannot multitask. We are not able to focus on more than one task at a time and when we are engaging in multiple tasks simultaneously, we are performing rapid switch-tasking, which lowers our efficiency and attention with each successive shift. As Turkle explained in Reclaiming Conversation, “Multitasking degrades our performances at everything we do, all the while giving us the feeling that we are doing better at everything.” 

Jordan Grafman, the head of the cognitive neuroscience unit at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke said, “The more you multitask, the less deliberative you become; the less able to think and reason out a problem… you become more likely to rely on conventional ideas and solutions rather than challenging them with original lines of thought” (as cited in Carr, The Shallows). Multitaskers are more easily distracted with reduced capacity for both sustained attention, detail orientation, concentration, and control over working memory. We live in a society of constant distraction and dissolving attention for deep thinking and sustained effort, which are the very skills necessary for sustaining focus and fortitude until the end of a difficult task or situation without giving up or seeking relief and escape through distraction. While James was writing to Jews scattered throughout the Roman empire and experiencing persecution in the first century, his call to single-minded focus and allegiance is just as relevant for twenty-first-century Christians. 

What Does James Mean by 'A Double-Minded Man'?

Perhaps you have heard the phrase 'double-minded man' before. The book of James is intended to provide practical explanation and application to how faith should work in the everyday life of a Christian. James, the half-brother of Jesus, became the leader of the early church in Jerusalem and wrote this book as a general encouragement to new believers now scattered throughout the world. Because of the presence of persecution and suffering of Christians, James opens the book with a reminder of God’s purpose of redemption in and through trials, with the goal being Christlikeness (1:4, 18), as Paul also regularly reiterated (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 3:17-19; Phil. 3:9-11; 1 Thess. 5:23). 

James’ letter is practical and applicable, drawing heavily on Old Testament material to this predominately Jewish audience. While we view the mind as the seat of control in a person, the Bible describes the heart or soul as the source of the person’s commitments, hopes, and trust. As Tim Keller explains, “From the heart flows our thinking, feelings, and actions. What the heart trusts, the mind justifies, the emotions desire, and the will carries out.” 

Being double-minded is to be double-souled or double-hearted, to exist with divided loyalties and allegiances. Double-minded people are easily swayed by doubt or uncertainty, which is the opposite of a follower of God. In the same way that multi-taskers feel more efficient while actually performing more poorly, a double-minded person is not just inefficient with each focus but lacks the fortitude necessary to receive the blessing of wisdom because the pursuit of wisdom requires faith that is whole and undoubting. A double-minded man hedges his bets, attempting to maintain a grip on both independence and dependence, but dependence on God is only dependence when it is complete.

The Choice of Dependence or Independence

The primary element of the Fall and introduction to sin occurred with this same choice of dependence and independence. God told Adam and Eve that they could eat from any tree in the Garden except one, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 2:16-17). Adam and Eve had to choose to remain dependent on God in His wisdom and provision, depending on God for the knowledge of good and evil and not seeking to know it for themselves. Adam and Eve chose independence from God, seeking to decide right and wrong for themselves and pursue their own wisdom (Gen. 3:5-7). James is echoing this first choice, highlighting the absoluteness of our allegiance to either God in His provision of wisdom and provision or allegiance to ourselves. There is no middle ground.

Jews receiving this letter from James would be reminded of the Shema, considered by many Jews as the most important prayer in Judaism and intended to be repeated during the morning and evening prayers. The Shema is found in Deuteronomy 6:4 with Shema the pronunciation of the first two words in Hebrew, “Hear, O Israel.” The fuller prayer states, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart” (Deut. 6:4-6). 

Jesus affirmed this comprehensive dependence when He was asked which of the commandments in the Law was greatest. Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-39). Dependence on God and love for Him is absolute, requiring a heart and mind and soul that is unified in its devotion and direction. As Jesus explained in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” A double-minded man cannot love God because loving God requires complete dependence and devotion to Him in heart, mind, and soul.

What Causes Double-Mindedness?

In our fallen, sinful state, no one is righteous, no one understands, no one seeks after God, no one does good (Rom. 3:10-12). Double-mindedness, then, occurs as the Holy Spirit begins to convict us of our sin and provide a capacity to respond to God’s love, but we seek to receive from God for our own benefit and to fulfill our own passions and desires (James 4:1-6). Often our nature of sin continues to direct our hearts and desires instead of dying to this sinful nature to live a new life in the Spirit that loves and serves God (Col. 3:9). We want to love ourselves first and love God second, but loving God is comprehensive and all-inclusive (Matt. 22:37). 

As Martin Luther said, “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your god.” The focus of our gaze and our desires defines the direction of our steps. Loving and trusting God does not occur by default as our default setting is sin and selfishness. Our hearts are formed through our regular habits and behaviors with a heart directed toward God requiring practice and regular realignment (Col. 3:6-14).

As James repeats throughout his book, it is not enough to believe that God is one and repeat the doctrines of the Shema, the orientation of our heart follows the application of our feet to action with the direction of our focus defined by the exertion of energy through a display of love, not just a statement (James 2:18-26). Worldliness and the desires of the world and for independence from God infuse our hearts, minds, and souls and must be put to death (Mark. 4:19; Col. 3:5). 

We are naturally single-minded away from God with double-mindedness as the natural consequence of our attempt to be righteous or wise through our own efforts. Wisdom comes through faith by asking God to transform our minds (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:23). To be single-minded, of one heart, soul, and mind with Christ requires a new, transformed heart (Rom. 12:2; Col. 3:10). James affirms the reality that we cannot multitask in our devotion to God and self. There is no middle ground between faith in God and faith in self or faith in God and no faith; such a person is hypocritical and unstable and must repent (James 4:8).

How to Stop Being A Double-Minded Man (or Woman)

What is the purpose of stopping our natural double-mindedness to be transformed as holistic lovers of God? James uses the word steadfast repeatedly to define a person who is single-minded, citing the example of Job as one who maintained his focus on God throughout his trials (James 5:11). The goal of single-mindedness is to be like Christ in perfect righteousness (1 Cor. 2:6; Eph. 4:13; Col. 4:12; Phil. 3:15; James 1:4). The trials and struggles we experience in this life should not cause us to waver or question God’s love (Rom. 8:38-39), but instead should produce rejoicing when we face them with steadfastness because it is through the testing of our faith, we are made perfect and complete (Rom. 5:2-5; James 1:3-4). Our “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1), evidenced through remaining “steadfast under trial… [to] receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).

Jesus withstood the same test of Adam, but instead of choosing independence and death, Jesus remained steadfast in His love and dependence on the Father, providing the means of “justification and life for all” (Rom. 5:18). The alignment of our desires and affections toward single-mindedness requires “being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil 2:2) in dependence on Christ as our model and example. “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourself before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:7-10).

Our Focus Determines Our Direction

Sin has distorted our awareness of self, others, and God with faulty assumptions regarding our capacities and worth. In seeking to be independent and know good and evil for ourselves, we lost the capacities to love God, love others, and remain in relationship with either. Our hearts and desires are bent inward, loving ourselves and think more highly of ourselves than we ought (Rom. 12:3). But God (Eph. 2:4). God transforms our desires, orienting our love toward Him (1 John. 4:9-10). A transformation of our independence to dependence, double-mindedness to single-mindedness, requires a complete transformation (Rom. 12:1-2). We must repent of our self-love and independence and turn toward God. 

Our focus determines our direction and we become what we love. Having the mind of Christ requires the transformation of our desires to love what God loves. Our sinful nature, the world, and the devil will work to disrupt our focus and determine our direction (Eph. 2:1-3), but we must remain steadfast in our experience and expression of God’s love. This journey is not a solo gig but requires cooperative support and encouragement along the way. 

The Shema in Deuteronomy 6 was not just an idea you considered, but a confession of faith you recited regularly, teaching it to your children, talking about it when you were sitting, walking, sleeping, and rising. They were to strap these words to their hands and foreheads, writing the reminder on their doorposts and their gates (Deut. 6:4-9). While this seems excessive, it is necessary because we are formed by our habits, and learning to love God takes practice and regular reminders. Loving God with our heart, soul, strength, and mind (Mark. 12:30) takes practice formed through regular habits engaged in community. Encourage one another, challenge one another, to remain steadfast and single-minded as we strive towards completion in Christ together (Gal. 4:19; James 5:19-20).

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Bulat Silvia

Seth L. Scott, PhD, NCC, LPC-S is an associate professor of clinical mental health counseling at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina and provides clinical counseling and supervision in the community through his counseling practice, Sunrise Counseling. Seth, his wife, Jen, and their two middle school children enjoy outdoor activities, reading together as a family, board games, and meeting people through Jen’s pottery business at galleries and festivals.

This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.

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