Today we’re going to talk about doubt. Now in the little bubble that is Twitter and the internet, in parts of it there has been a conversation occurring about doubt and how we should talk about it. Should we say that it’s a sin? Should we comfort the doubters? All these things. I think in part, oftentimes we’ve been seeing half of the truth, half of the full response that’s needed. Really what I want to try to do today is look at this from multiple angles.
I’m not someone who’s unacquainted with doubt. I’ve shared my personal story in the past, but while I grew up in church, I went there two or three times a week, I was there for the services, I knew a good bit of my Bible. I would say looking back, I didn’t necessarily know how it all fit together very well, but nonetheless, I had a better opportunity than most to come to understand and believe the truths of Christianity.
But by the time I got to college and was in college, I was basically dead in the water, spiritually speaking. If you’d asked me, and if I’d been honest in replying, if I thought God existed or if I thought he was good, I would have probably told you no I didn’t. I didn’t see how the existence of God made more sense than his nonexistence. I didn’t see how, if he existed, he could possibly be good with what was revealed in the Bible, and I didn’t think the resurrection made a lot of sense either. You could say I had some doubts at the very least. I’m not unacquainted with this.
On the flip side of that, as someone who worked through that by the grace of God, I’m very thankful for that, I now have walked with and walked with people who experience doubts. I want to talk today, to the person who is struggling with doubt, and also to the person who is working with those, and talking and walking with those who struggle with doubt. At points, it may seem like I’m saying contradictory things, but I’m not intending to. What I’m intending to do is address each person specifically and individually, and we’ll come out with a view of what the whole outlook should be.
Now before we proceed, I think it’s really important to define our terms, because oftentimes when we talk about doubt, different people mean different things. (I have a doubt as to if we are in fact talking about the same thing sometimes.) When I talk about doubt, I’m not just talking about questions. I think sometimes people will put questions in the category of doubt, and they could be, but I don’t know that that’s always the best and most direct way to talk about it. Because a question might be, “Well what did Paul mean when he spoke of women not prophesying with their head uncovered?” What does that mean? That’s not a doubt, that’s saying, “I don’t know this thing.” I think a doubt is more likely to be, “I’m not so sure that’s true. I’m not so sure about that thing,” or maybe a stronger version would be, “I don’t think that’s true. A little bit of me believes that, but I don’t think that’s true.” That’s more of a doubt.
I think oftentimes a doubt, more specifically is going to be in response to something that has been revealed. There are things we are not going to have certainty on, that have not been very well revealed to us. For example, there’s one verse where Paul makes mention of baptism for the dead, and it’s like okay, what is he talking about there? Is he saying we should do this? Is he saying people did do this? What on earth is happening? That’s something we’re not going to have nearly as much confidence in. We might doubt our understanding of more then something like the resurrection. But I think really it’s not so much a doubt as it is a question. What does that mean? That’s different than saying, “The Bible clearly teaches the resurrection of Jesus, and I’m not so sure about that.” That’s a doubt, the former is a question and there’s a fuzzy overlap in the middle, but I hope walking through that maybe gives us a little bit of a framework to think through.
You know what’s interesting? Some people have said multiple things about doubt. For instance: where there’s certainty there’s no room for faith, so doubt actually strengthens our faith. I think if that’s the direction someone’s coming at this from, that’s dangerous because faith is not a way of knowing, faith is trust in what has been revealed or in the person who has revealed it, namely God in Christ, and so we can have certainty and strong faith.
Isn’t it interesting that the apostles had what you might say is some of the strongest faith we’ve seen after the resurrection, and when they encountered the risen Lord, and they had certainty, they saw him, they touched him, they watched him eat fish, and that drove their conviction with their ministry, they had certainty and strong faith. There are people out there who will pit those things against each other. I don’t think that’s helpful. Some people also will say that, “Well if you didn’t have faith, you wouldn’t actually be doubting.” I think that’s dangerous. Jesus criticizes people for their lack of faith, and then goes on to say, “Why are you doubting?” In James, James is talking of the person who’s going through trials and who would ask of God, and he says, “But he must ask in faith, without doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave on the sea, blown and tossed around by the wind.” We actually have doubt and faith juxtaposed here, set in opposition to each other. These are not the same thing, they’re opposite ends of a spectrum in some ways.
Now I think we can cash this out, where there’s some nuance there. For instance, I may have some doubts, but I am still going to act in faith, in trust. But if I had much more trust, I would have less doubts. I think of a little child who’s about to jump off of a table into her daddy’s arms, and so does she have a doubt that he’s going to catch her? No. Now she may, she may at some point be a little tentative, and she may still jump. She might have some doubt like, “Oh, this is uncomfortable, I’m not so sure,” but she still acts in trust. The stronger your faith, the less doubts you have. They are on a continuum together. They are opposite ends in some way, of the continuum. The person who has massive doubt is not going to trust that thing that they’re doubting.
When I come to an old bridge walking through the woods, and that thing looks if I stood on that, especially after my holiday eating, I’m might fall through, I’m not going to walk on the bridge. I’ve got doubts, I do not exhibit trust in the bridge. On the other hand, I might come to something in the woods and it’s shiny and it’s stainless steel. Gosh, that thing looks like you could drive a tank over it. I have no doubts and so I act in trust, not much trust, and I walk across the bridge.
All of this to say, the Bible nowhere presents doubt as a good thing. It doesn’t. It never says, “You should doubt.” It says in Jude, to rescue those who are doubting, to have mercy on those who doubt, to snatch others out of the fire, the fire of probably doubt and temptation and bad beliefs and things like that, but never does it commend doubt. Never does it commend skepticism. We shouldn’t encourage people to doubt, and this should help those of us who currently do not struggle with doubt, and how we approach those who do. We do not need to encourage them in their doubts, we need to encourage them to work through them. We don’t need to condemn that person, certainly not, and we’ll talk a little bit about how Jesus and scripture talks to those who are doubting, but nonetheless, we have to start with the affirmation that doubt is not a good thing.
There are many things in life that are not good. That’s not picking on someone. Some people in this conversation online about doubt right now, do not want to say doubt is bad because they don’t want to alienate the doubter. Well what if we apply that same reasoning in other places? Should we not say to the person who’s a murderer, “murdering is bad.” Well we don’t want to offend that person. See, that logic doesn’t work. We can tell someone that, “What you’re doing is bad, or what you’re experiencing is not good, and let’s help you work through it.” In fact to say, “You know what? I’ve been there. I’ve been in that situation. I know that that situation feels horrible. I don’t want you to go through what you’re going through.” But some people today actually encourage others to stay in their doubts. They think doubt and skepticism is a good place to live intellectually and emotionally. It’s not. The Bible commends trust, active trust, being convinced. God revealed himself and his word so that we could know. In some ways, doubt is a refusal to believe what God has said.
Now is that always a conscious choice? Like, “Well God said this. Oh, i don’t like that. I’m going to refuse to believe that.” No, a lot of times, the thing we believe and do not believe aren’t as much consciously chosen. We don’t just see beliefs out there on a platter and say, “Oh, I like that one and that one, and I’m going to pass on that one.” No, we don’t so much choose our beliefs in that direct of a way, but we can choose our beliefs in some ways: We can work towards a belief in something. That’s the question when we walk with someone who’s doubting, how are we going to encourage them to work through their doubts? Or as Tim Keller has said, “Are we going to encourage them to doubt their doubts?” Are we going to help them work through their questions? We should not alienate the person who’s doubting, not at all, but we must start from the affirmation that doubt is not a good thing.
Now to the person who’s doubting, like I said, I’ve been there, I understand. It’s interesting, when we look at Jesus talk with the doubters, more often than not, he’s not affirming doubt’s a good thing, he doesn’t say, “Oh, you should be comfortable where you’re at,” but what he does is he has mercy on them. I think of Thomas. After the resurrection, Thomas basically says, “Unless I touch his hands and his feet and his side, and feel the holes, I’m not going to believe.” Some have read this passage and said, “Well see, Jesus is good with doubt because he actually reveals himself and lets Thomas touch him.” I think we have to be careful here because just because Jesus condescended and indulged Thomas in doubt, that doesn’t mean the doubt was a good thing. What it means is Jesus is a merciful savior.
This actual application for both groups of people we’re talking about today, those who are doubting and those who are working through their doubts is that Jesus is a merciful savior, Jesus understands how we are. He created us, he knows how sin has affected our minds, and ultimately I do think doubt can be sin. If God has revealed himself and we refuse to believe him at his word, that’s sin, but you know what? There’s forgiveness in Christ.
I think of all the examples of sinners who came to Christ, whether it was their doubt or their sexual sin or their theft, or all of those things, he had mercy on those people. There is repentance available for everything, but behind this is also this idea that sin is not always something that’s consciously chosen. We have sinful desires that come out of us, that we don’t immediately control, and yet they’re still sinful. Scripture has no concept of for something to be sin, it must be consciously and willfully chosen.
We’re guilty in Adam of sin that we didn’t commit. Like I mentioned a minute ago, we have hate and anger and things that come out of us, that yes we’re responsible for, but in the moment, we don’t always choose. I think it’s the same way with doubt. Due to living in a fallen world and being fallen people and all of those things, doubt can occur, but the question is how are we going to respond.
For the person who walks with the doubter, as Jude says, are you going to have mercy and walk with them, and snatch them from the fire? Because we realize that what people believe is actually really important. Your beliefs about Jesus and his work on the cross are the most important things you could have beliefs about. They’re the most import things that you need to work through your doubts on. For those who are doubting, read the picture of Jesus in scripture. Understand how faith and doubt is talked about, and understand that the Lord who died on the cross, (which maybe something you’re struggling with doubting, I’ve been there) but that same person can have mercy on you for your doubt.
But I’ve also been there like I said, and I know it’s an uncomfortable place to live. In some ways, the existential pain, the angst of working through beliefs that seem to be crumbling, it’s worse than physical suffering in some ways. Your whole framework for understanding the world might be breaking and falling apart, but don’t stay there. Don’t just wallow in that, and don’t choose your beliefs based on what you like. Don’t choose the direction you’re going to set down based on what feels good, but sit done and try to find out what is true.
I had to do that. I had to stop living with the tension of teaching a Bible study, playing in the band at church, and yet believing that all of this stuff didn’t make a lick of sense. I had to say, “I can’t live like this,” so I read non-Christians who made a case for their Atheism, and I read actual good, intellectual Christians who made a case for Christianity, and I realized that in spite of not liking things about Christianity (and I don’t think that’s a good thing to not like the truth) I came to determine that Christianity was true. I needed to be honest enough with myself and those around me to actually believe what was true in spite of how I felt.
That is what we need to encourage people to do if we’re walking with the doubters. If we are the doubter, we need to take our doubt seriously. Why wouldn’t we doubt our doubts too? Why wouldn’t we look at what other people have had to say, and analyze the evidence? Do the due diligence that you deserve. As someone created in the image of God, what you believe is really important and your emotional and spiritual health is important, so do the work, read, study, find someone who will walk with you, maybe someone who’s been through that before and has perspective and who 1), isn’t going to coddle you and your doubt, but 2), is going to have mercy and walk with you in love on that.
Both responses are necessary, both understandings of doubt are necessary. One, it’s not a good thing, but two, we should work through it and likely we’ll need to be honest enough with ourselves to say that the things that our mind is struggling to believe perhaps, our heart doesn’t like. Often that’s where this starts. That’s where it started for me. I didn’t like certain things, and so they started to appear like they did not make sense. I think when we walk with people who doubt, we have to be in tune with that too.
But one last thing to the people who shepherd others and who walk with people who doubt. Questions are not necessarily doubts, and even of they are, we don’t need to villainize people. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked with who had questions in high school, and were shunned. “Oh well, you just need to believe. You just need to have faith.” That sort of response is not helpful. I think of Jesus’ response to Thomas, and this is someone who had walked with Jesus, so it’s not this idea that just someone sight unseen said, “Well hmm, is that Jesus?” No, Thomas really wanted to touch him. I think that’s an extreme standard of proof, and nonetheless, Jesus walked with him through that. We need to be willing to do the same. Don’t demonize those who doubt. Have mercy on them, walk through them with love, just like the lord did.
Questions are something to be answered, not shunned. When someone says, “Well how does it make sense that science says the Earth is 4.54 billion years old, and yet Christians say it’s 6000 years old? How does that make sense? Aren’t we wrong?” Don’t just shun that person, sit down. Maybe you need to do some research yourself, but walk with them through that. That’s a discipleship opportunity for them, and honestly, for you.
In summary, wrapping this up, doubt’s not a good thing, but we don’t demonize those who doubt. Questions are different than doubt. Saying, “What does that mean?” Is different than saying, “I don’t believe that,” or, “I’m not so sure that’s true.” But be not mistaken, the more we’re convinced, the stronger our trust will be, and so for the person who’s struggling, work through that, you’ll end up with a stronger trust in Jesus. For the person who’s walking with someone, help them work through that, they’ll end up with a stronger trust in Jesus.