The motto of The Little Engine That Could could be the tagline for Hermas of Rome, an author from the first century. Hermas wrote his text, The Shepherd of Hermas, during a formative period in Christian history, just after the death of the Apostles. In the absence of Apostolic authority, Hermas and his contemporaries did their best to reconcile the teaching they had learned with the realities of their lives, with varying degrees of success. The Shepherd of Hermas is an intriguing narrative that forces the reader to revisit ideas commonly taken for granted today. In it, Hermas records visions he saw and commandments and parables he received from an angel dressed as a shepherd.
About a quarter of the text is devoted to commandments for holy living given to Hermas so that he might recover God’s favor, which he lost by allowing himself and his household to slip into a life of sin. One of these commandments deals with a sin that the Shepherd calls being “double-minded”:
Do not be at all double-minded about asking God for something, saying to yourself, for example, “How can I ask for something from God and receive it, when I have sinned so often against him?” Do not reason in this way, but turn to the Lord with all your heart and ask of him unhesitatingly, and you will know his extraordinary compassion, because he will never abandon you but will fulfill your soul’s request. … So cleanse your heart of double-mindedness and put on faith, because it is strong, and trust God that you will receive all the requests you make.
Hermas’ double-mindedness manifested itself in a lack of confidence in his relationship and standing with God. In its most advanced form, it became doubt that God was who He said He was and would do what He had promised to do. Double-mindedness crippled Hermas’ relationship with God because it destroyed trust, and no relationship can function without trust.
As a remedy to double-mindedness, the Shepherd prescribed faith. As doubt destroys a relationship, faith builds it. The Shepherd saw being faithful as an action that has an object: a man is faithful to his wife, a business is faithful to its contracts. For Hermas, putting on faith meant being faithful to God, trusting that God was who He had revealed Himself to be, and acting appropriately in light of that revelation. This had immediate and practical applications in Hermas’ life, because he was already doubting whether he could keep the commandments the Shepherd was giving him. Hermas knew that God had promised to provide strength for holy living, yet in his double-mindedness he acted as if he did not know that about God at all.
The Shepherd’s admonishment to Hermas is still instructive today. Double-mindedness is an insidious disease that often takes root unnoticed, but has destructive potential. Hermas’ ignorance of his plight should set modern Christians wondering whether double-mindedness has a hold on us as well. A good place to start looking is in our prayers. When we make requests of God, do we make them in faith, with expectations that are consistent with the power and generosity that God has shown in His relations with us, or do we make them double-mindedly, with doubt already in place as to whether God will grant them? If we find ourselves in Hermas’ position, then we need a refresher on faith. A good place to start is by reflecting on who God has shown himself to be, both in the Bible and in our own lives. God has spent thousands of years pursuing His people. Our responsibility is to remember who He has revealed Himself to be, and act as that knowledge dictates. Thankfully, many have traveled this road before us, and God has traveled with them. After 4,000 years of interaction, we can be assured that God is “the same yesterday and today and forever.”