#WCSK Episode 0.2: Can I have faith and still have doubts?

What Christians Should Know (#WCSK): Volume Zero takes a step back and investigates basic ideas about God, the Bible, and the Christian faith. This series provides crucial answers to critical questions about belief.

 

Introduction

Let’s start by taking a look at what the Bible says about trusting in God and having doubts. (All verses below are taken from the ESV.)

“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.” (James 1:5-8)

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.” (Proverbs 3:5-8)

“And have mercy on those who doubt.” (Jude 1:22)

Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31)

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

“How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1)

From these verses, I get the overall impression that faith and doubt stand in contrast to one another, but they still stand side-by-side. Even more, experience informs the honest Christian that doubt is a very real component of their walk with God. As is commonly said, if bravery means persisting in the midst of fear, then faith means persisting in the midst of doubt.

What I hope to clarify in this lesson is that yes, you can have faith and still have doubts, but it is our faith that motivates us to strive forward in pursuit of a deeper, closer relationship with Jesus. As we mature in Christ, faith increases and doubt fades. Ultimately, doubt can act as an effective servant of truth when it wrestles fiercely and conquers those things that are appropriately doubtful.

The anatomy of doubt

As I have written in a prior lesson, faith means believing in a trustworthy God. Faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is the hallmark of a believer. In a general, secular sense, faith simply refers to having confidence or trust in something. And what is doubt? The New Oxford American Dictionary refers to it as “a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction.” Doubt is the hallmark of a skeptic. I will dissect the term doubt because its use in modern parlance is often misleading.

As defined, doubt refers to a temporary feeling of not being sure and a lack of conviction, but not the absence of conviction. What does this mean? That doubt does not equal unbelief.

And if doubt does not equal unbelief, it is not the opposite of faith. Os Guinness makes this distinction very clear:

“Contrary to widespread misunderstanding, doubt is not the same as unbelief, so it is not the opposite of faith. Rather it is a state of mind in suspension between faith and unbelief. To believe is to be in one mind about accepting something as true; to disbelieve is to be in one mind about rejecting it; and to doubt is to waver somewhere in between the two, and thus to be in two minds. This important distinction uncovers a major misconception of doubt—the idea that a believer betrays faith and surrenders to unbelief by doubting.”[1]

Doubt therefore represents an internal war where people are divided against themselves. One side says, “I am sure,” while the other side asks, “Are you really sure that you’re sure?” In the battlefield of the mind, doubt is the force that swings the pendulum between belief and unbelief. This interpretation of having a two-fold mind is validated by the Greek words for doubt found in the New Testament.[2] For example, the word for doubt in Jude 1:22 is diakrinō, which means “to separate thoroughly, to withdraw from, to learn by discrimination, to waver.” This informs us of the process of doubt—something dynamic that persuades someone to learn and discern what they truly believe—which enables a person to stop the pendulum and stand comfortably in what they have faith in. So while doubt is unsure, it is also investigatory and directs a person toward the assurance of belief.

Now let’s also be clear: doubt isn’t something to be taken lightly. It is not a casual entity to be embraced, because the world is full of people who doubt for the sake of doubting and who, in the end, don’t believe in anything but doubt. Our walk of faith has eternal ramifications, and Who we believe in is final and permanent. Doubt is very, very serious, but it is not final—it is a transition.

This realistic view of doubt also challenges two schools of thought about skepticism. On the one hand, it tells us that we can’t be too soft on doubt and embrace ambiguity. This leads to believers who constantly swing on a pendulum and waver between opinions. On the other hand, it tells us that we can’t ignore the reality of doubt and try to demonize people who have honest reservations. If this path is followed and the doubt is ignored, the person has no choice but to stuff the doubt deep down inside, where it can grow. This drives them away from the church and Christ.

The English definition of doubt emphasizes a feeling of uncertainty—doubt carries with it a strong emotional component. This emotionality is therefore susceptible to circumstances and situations, and this also helps to explain why doubt is more prevalent at night.[3] Doubt need not be a permanent condition but rather a response to changing tides in life. Doubt is also learned—after all, a person can doubt only if they have learned certain things that draw them away from one belief to another. This means that as a person develops faith in one conviction, their doubts in alternatives increase. Seen from this perspective, doubt not only is compatible with faith, but is a necessary consequence of it.

Generally speaking, if a person doubts A, then they will have faith in B. Doubt by itself has no value because it is dependent and derivative. Doubt only has value as it points to an alternative, positive belief. Accordingly, as Timothy Keller writes in The Reason for God, “Every doubt, therefore, is based on a leap of faith.”[4] So if you have faith in God, you tend to doubt that the universe just happened without a cause. If you are an atheist, you have faith in Darwinism and tend to doubt that God is the Creator of the universe. If you are a pacifist, you have faith in non-violence and tend to doubt the efficacy of war. So when we use this frame of thinking and apply it to faith in God, a reasonable way to approach the issue of doubt is to ask what a person’s alternatives are. That is, if they don’t have faith in God, do they have faith in something else, and why? Ultimately, eternity matters more than the present, and an inescapable certainty of life is that all people must die. If a person’s alternative does not provide a reliable promise of eternity backed up by Someone who has conquered death, perhaps it is time to begin doubting one’s doubts.

In the context of the Christian faith and life of the church, the goal is always to build up others and edify people.[5] So, a person who has doubts isn’t a target to be vanquished, but rather someone to be compassionately engaged. Rejecting the person pushes them away from God while the doubt remains intact (and it may even swell due to the adverse response). Alternatively, engaging the doubt and addressing the person’s concerns can diminish skepticism and draw the individual closer to Christ. As an example, take the famous incident of doubting Thomas in John 20:24-29. There, Thomas refused to believe that Jesus rose from the dead unless he saw the nail marks in Christ’s hands, and he put his finger where the nails had pierced Jesus’s flesh. What did Jesus do? He certainly did not shun Thomas but actually showed Thomas proof and allowed him to investigate His crucified body. It is then that Jesus said, “Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” What was Thomas’s response? He said, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus, who graciously responded to Thomas and his doubts with future-oriented consideration, transformed doubting Thomas into believing Thomas. A similar instance happens in Mark 9:24 when a father admits that he has belief mixed up with unbelief, and he asks Jesus to help him. Christ responds by blessing the man and healing his son.

What is clearly certain is that any Christian who has doubts should begin to seek meaningful answers and clarity from resources that proclaim sound Christian doctrine and intelligent faith. When believers do this, they should pursue an answer that gives them peace and cures their restlessness. I advise everyone to seek a Christian teacher who is reliable and trustworthy. If you are sick, do you not look for a trustworthy doctor? If you have a legal problem, do you not look for a good lawyer? If you have a doubt problem, why look for anyone other than the author and the finisher of our faith? (Hebrews 12:2)

What is also certain is that if you have doubts, the last thing you should do is google your question or watch a YouTube video from the skeptic with this week’s most popular video. Remember, doubt by itself has no value unless it directs you to an alternative belief. It has always mesmerized me that people doubt Christ and then find “solace” in the idea that nothing produced everything, that people have no causal purpose, and that the uncertainty of a person’s eternal destiny is brushed off with a casual shrug of the shoulders. True, a person doesn’t necessarily need God to “take life by the horns” and be “happy,” but they also don’t need skepticism to do that either.

Doubt: A Biblical case study

When I first began thinking seriously about faith and doubt, one Bible story that came to mind was Matthew 14:22-33. In this well-known story, Peter and the disciples went ahead of Jesus and were traveling by boat across a lake. In the middle of the night, a storm struck and Jesus approached the boat by walking on water. The text says that all the disciples saw Christ and thought He was a ghost, so they cried out in fear. It is then that Jesus says, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid” (v. 27). This is what happens next:

Peter said to Him, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” And He said, “Come!” And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind stopped. And those who were in the boat worshiped Him, saying, “You are certainly God’s Son!” (v. 28-33)

There were disciples (plural) in the boat, yet only Peter stepped out and walked toward Christ. And, in his pursuit of Jesus, he saw the wind and got scared. When he fell into the water, he called Jesus “Lord” and asked Christ to save him. Jesus graciously extended His hand and picked Peter up, telling him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” What does this tell us? That in Peter’s case, he had a little bit of faith that co-existed with doubt. Preachers like to beat Peter up in this story, yet they often neglect to mention the other disciples, who were crippled with fear and never got out of the boat in the first place. Even more, what is most reassuring about this story is that even when we step out in faith with doubts, it is Jesus, God’s Word made flesh, that will pick us up when we stumble. Less Jesus, we drown in the waters of doubt.

The astute Bible student will now say, “Wait a minute! What about Matthew 21:18-22—Jesus commands a fig tree, it withers, and then He says to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen” (v. 21). I would reply that the acute emphasis in this verse is not on doubt but on faith. Hence, it is the liberty from doubt that emerges from confidence in the power of God and in a request made that aligns with God’s will. To validate this understanding, consider Jesus’s words in Matthew 17:20 that highlight the same principle:

Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.

Furthermore, in Matthew 21:12, the Greek phrase that translates as “and do not doubt” uses a special nuance of the word diakrinō (as already discussed, this does not mean lack of belief), which can be discerned as “without hesitation.”[6]

Conclusion: practical applications

The fact is that an overwhelming majority of Americans (more than 80%) believe in God, and Europe is becoming more religious.[7] If anyone tells you that religion is on the decline around the globe, that statement is to be immediately doubted. Why? The fact is, excluding Buddhism, all major religions are projected to grow in number over the next 40 years (Islam is growing the fastest), while the number of people who are unaffiliated with any religion will make up a declining percentage of the global population.[8] There is steady expansion of Christianity across the globe with explosive growth in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.[9] So, scientific advancements of the modern world have not caused secularization or diminished the need for religion.[10] However, adjacent to these phenomena is the reality that in America, doubt and skepticism are on the rise and are marked by increases in those who do not go to church[11] and those who identify themselves as “Nones,” or having no religious preference.[12] Cognizant of this polarization, a wise path to chart is not to shun the skeptical but to embrace them and reconcile the reservations they have with God, the Bible, and the Christian faith.

Doubt is like a fortress that defends against gullibility and a soldier that wields a sword that cuts away the counterfeit from the truth. Doubt actually signals the start of a search for that assured truth so that we may begin building upon what is clear in our minds. The danger in not having an honest conversation about doubt is that it will dissuade the development of vetted, mature beliefs. After all, people who have never taken the time to seek meaningful answers may find themselves crippled at the hands of a staunch skeptic, or may quickly flee from God in the midst of trouble. The goal is always maturity in Christ, and intelligent faith provides the clarity and meaningful answers that people need to navigate through the rough patches in their walk with God.

George Macdonald once said, “Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to the honest.” At some point in our Christian walk, we will all be plagued by doubt. Where do we go when we need comfort for our hearts and clarity for our minds? It is absolutely critical that we immerge ourselves in God’s timeless, unchanging, and certain Word, which is the light that guides us in the darkness (Psalm 119:105; Romans 10:17). God’s inspired Word is beneficial to us at all times of our life. As II Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” The reassuring news is that because God is sovereign, our doubts will never change who He is, what He has already done for us in Christ, or the fact that all things (even our doubts) come together for the good of His children (Romans 8:28). We may doubt, but God is the rock (Psalm 18:2) upon which we stand. Before the foundation of the world, He knew all about us and yet He still chose us (Ephesians 1:11), cognizant of all the doubts we would have. As we look to The Lord for assurance, He promises never to abandon us (Hebrews 13:5). Strong faith endures in the good times and the bad, and any honest Christian should not only anticipate the reality of doubt but also have a plan on how to address that doubt. Real, legitimate, Biblical faith can certainly pass the tests of the doubts of life, and in the end through Christ, it shall reign victorious and emerge stronger, more vigorous and more confident than it was before.

Have questions or doubts? Get clarity and meaningful answers. Email us: info@wcsk.org.

Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal

 

[1] Os Guinness, “I Believe in Doubt,” Ligonier.org (excerpted from Tabletalk Magazine), January 1st, 1992, last accessed July 21st, 2016, http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/i-believe-in-doubt/

[2] For example, dialogizoma, dipsukos, meteorizomai, and distazo.

[3] See Gary R. Habermas, Dealing with Doubt (Chicago: Moody Press, 1990). Full text of this book is available at http://www.garyhabermas.com/books/dealing_with_doubt/dealing_with_doubt.htm.

[4] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), xviii.

[5] I Corinthians 14:12; Ephesians 4:12

[6] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 243-44. For similar usage of diakrinō, see Acts 10:20, Romans 4:20, and James 1:6-8.

[7] Ross Douthat, “Crisis of Faith,” The Atlantic, July/August 2007, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2007/07/crises-of-faith/305967/

[8] “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050,” Pew Research Center, last modified April 2nd, 2015, last accessed July 21st, 2016, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/

[9] Krish Kandiah, “The Church is growing, and here are the figures that prove it,” Christianity Today, March 05, 2015, http://www.christiantoday.com/article/a.growing.church.why.we.should.focus.on.the.bigger.picture/49362.htm

[10] See Peter L. Berger, ed., The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999).

[11] “10 Facts About America’s Churchless,” The Barna Group, last modified December 10, 2014, last accessed July 19, 2016, https://www.barna.org/barna-update/culture/698-10-facts-about-america-s-churchless

[12] See “Three Spiritual Journeys of Millennials,” The Barna Group, last modified June 3, 2013, last accessed July 19, 2016, https://www.barna.org/barna-update/millennials/612-three-spiritual-journeys-of-millennials.html. Millennials are the group most likely to have no religious preference.

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