Doubt: A Christian Perspective

(This piece was originally written for The Vision 100 Network)

I was recently preparing some training material on the topic of doubt. As I was talking through the first draft with a colleague, he said, “It is, of course, helpful to think about the opposite of doubt, i.e. faith”.

I replied that I didn’t think of doubt as the opposite of faith.

He looked up at the ceiling for a moment, “When in heaven, face-to-face with God, doubt will be completely driven away”.

I didn’t have a defence but proceeded to stare up the ceiling for an hour, hand to stubble. He made a good point. Faith and doubt do seem at odds with each other: one leads towards belief, confidence and conviction, the other, away.

As I stewed over it, it occurred to me that we were both right. Doubt will disappear in the tangible, immediate presence of God, yes, but surely so will faith? If “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see[1]” then as “what is mortal is swallowed up by life[2]”, faith will be equally done away with, even as it is fulfilled. Faith become sight is no longer faith. “When completeness comes, what is in part disappears […] Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.[3]

Don’t get me wrong, the Bible holds high the ideal of confidence and certainty of faith (although I see very few examples of absolute certainty in scripture). But we run into a problem when we change an ideal into an idol.

We turn faith into an idol when we, as Gregory A. Boyd describes, think of faith as that very American of festival games, High Striker. You know the one—there’s a big hammer and bell at the top of what looks like a giant thermometer. The harder you hit, the higher it goes, the more likely you are to receive a prize.

If faith, particularly saving faith, were a matter of psychologically or emotionally hitting hard enough to ring the heavenly bell, then the questioner could feel as though their intellect is the enemy of their salvation.

I think the way we often frame faith can breed an anti-intellectualism, leaving us little time to deal with our own questions or those of others because of a misconception that those questions are stopping us from stepping up to the plate and swinging to win. This idea is to the detriment of people who can’t turn off those nuisance brains God gave them (which I hope is most of us).

The Bible doesn’t seem to be majorly concerned about our psychological certitude. Though it calls us to right doctrine, it doesn’t talk about how readily, intensely and perhaps blindly we should assent to a set of ideas. Though the Bible leads us towards praise and affection for God, it doesn’t say that faith is defined by the quality of our emotional experience as Christians. Though the Bible is a historical document, it doesn’t say we must believe it because of inerrant historicity.

Instead we find that saving faith is the opposite of work; it’s recognition of our incapacity to be right with God, and dependence on the work of Jesus to solve that problem. This, in my mind, doesn’t rule out doubt. In fact, I’d say that it’s hard to properly appreciate the Gospel without dealing with the most difficult but meaningful questions we all are confronted with at some point.

The value of doubt

Faith and doubt aren’t opposites, they are inseparable in this life if we have any concern for truth. Khalil Gibran states, “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother”. How can we believe what is true if we don’t also discard what is untrue? How can we discover what is erroneous if we don’t allow room for doubt? The Bible clearly spells out just how limited and forgetful we are, how insensitive we’ve become to truth. Surely doubt is an essential ingredient to form honest, nuanced, correct belief?

I believe that doubt, when redeemed by God (note, not taken away), can give deeper colour to our faith and lead us to a more robust appreciation of the Gospel. It can make us more persuasive, relatable and authentic as we explain our faith to those who consider it foolishness.

A word to those in teaching roles. If you give permission to doubt—to not buy into what you’re preaching—then maybe, by the grace of God, your listeners will uncover the truth for themselves rather than accepting it in the form of a script. Don’t misunderstand me, preach the truth and be persuasive, but allow people to react how they will. They’ll be reacting that way anyway, but the difference will be whether or not they’ll process those reactions in conversation or just sit quietly in a pool of inadvertent dishonesty.

Living with doubt

Some encouragement and challenges for doubtful minds.

Firstly, God is Judge over us; we’re not the judge of Him. If we’re going to question God, we also have to deal with the questions He asks of us. Like Job, we’ll likely find our answers wanting.

Secondly, God is omniscient. Much more significant than us knowing everything is the reality that everything has been seen and understood by God. As important as knowing God is, His complete, intimate knowledge of us is of greater profundity.

Thirdly, God is gracious. God’s incredible patience is demonstrated in that he stoops down to our level even while He is the owner of all knowledge. God covers our imperfection with grace; his kindness leads us as we figure things out. His love fills in the gaps as we live in the “now and not yet”.

Lastly, I want to say that you’re welcome in the Church! Your questions aren’t necessarily antagonistic to pursuing a faithful Christian life. I encourage you to not become bitter, as is easy to do in the midst of doubt. You can be loved in your questions and you can love out of your questions. In fact, the Bible puts love over even faith and hope (1 Cor 13:13). This is demonstrated by the saviour on the cross; lovingly obedient even as he cries out in despair, mourning the felt absence of God. This is the one who mediates for you in your (perhaps indefinite) season of doubt.

[1] Hebrews 11:1

[2] 2 Corinthians 5:4

[3] 1 Corinthians 13:10

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