The Importance of Doubt

The curate’s search had already greatly widened the sphere of his doubts. But if there be such a thing as truth, every fresh doubt is yet another fingerpost pointing toward its dwelling. -George Macdonald, The Curate’s Awakening

A few days ago, I was in conversation with someone who, although raised Christian, had too many doubts and had walked away from the faith. He felt that since he had so many doubts, he couldn’t be considered Christian.

For most, faith and doubt are seen in terms of opposites. Faith is seen to reside on one end of the spectrum and doubt on the other end—poles apart from each other. However, this is not the way the two are handled in Christian theology. It is more accurate to say that faith and doubt stand side-by-side on one end of the spectrum and, on the other, stands unbelief.

Faith and doubt typically dwell together, informing as well as challenging each other. Faith grows as doubt spurs it on to further thinking, research, and prayer, and with God’s help, we emerge with a stronger, more profound level of faith.

So doubt, far from being the sinful and destructive thing it is often thought to be, is the guard which keeps us from falling asleep. It adds the necessary pressure to keep us from spouting the mindless “leap-in-the-dark” imaginary faith. Doubt poses essential questions: Is what I believe accurate and true? Is God reliable? Is belief in the resurrection and Jesus’ power over life fact or fiction? Honest wrestling through these questions leads us to the truth of the Christian faith.

Doubting Thomas is valuable to us, not because his experience warns us away from honest doubt, but because he affirms the legitimacy of it. Jesus rebukes Thomas for doubting (if it was a rebuke), not because he asked for evidence of the resurrection, but because he had received so much evidence already and was slow in coming around to believing it. Thomas wanted incontrovertible evidence that Jesus’ claim was valid and, in the end, he was given more than he asked for—the presence of his risen Master in a physical body, so irrefutable and decisive, Thomas did not really need all the evidence that he was offered (John 20:24-29).

But Thomas’ doubts give hope to those who are in the same place as Thomas was. If Jesus gave Thomas what he asked for, we too are assured of Jesus’ being with us and answering our doubts.

Doubt helps reveal dubious faith. Cult theology, homemade religion, eccentric and provincial expressions of Christian faith (i.e., what Aunt Sally taught me) are exposed when people begin to have misgivings of what they had been taught. Many find that what they had believed all their lives to be true had nothing to do with the Bible.

A helpful metaphor is that of the host body and the parasite. Faith is the host body, and doubt is the parasite. It feeds off the host as the tick feeds off the dog. It can’t be greater than the host, but depends upon it for its life. So the greater the faith, the greater the doubts, and the lesser the faith, the lesser the doubts, precisely the converse of what one might expect.

We tend to think that saints and veteran warriors of faith have few, if any, doubts. Experience demonstrates the opposite. Doubts, as well as great temptations, feed off faith. Doubts might be due to conscience or considered superior intellect, or even from the Tempter himself. Still, God permits each challenge to drive our roots deeper into biblical life-enriching soil.

The real enemy of faith and condemned consistently in Scripture is not honest doubt, but unbelief. From the point of view of Scripture, unbelief is defined as the will and desire not to believe. It is a simple rebellion against God’s will. Unbelief is resolutely bent on not believing or obeying, regardless of the truth.

Unbelief doesn’t ask, Is the Gospel the word of God? Am I trusting in something reliable? Rather, its question is more, How can I avoid God and his unwanted claim upon my life?

Unbelief seeks to twist and turn in whatever way is necessary to keep from submitting to the divine command. Jesus described it as the true object of God’s wrath, “the love of darkness rather than light” (John 3:19-20). Honest doubt is not condemned in Scripture, but dishonest unbelief is.

If you have doubts, don’t see it as unbelief. The two realities, on the surface, may appear to be the same. For example, one may say, “I don’t believe that Jesus Christ is the resurrected Son of God and Savior of the world,” yet makes this confession out of genuine doubt and would gladly embrace the truth when it is proven. The other makes it out of resentment or not wanting to follow the Truth. They love abiding in their sin and have no intention of changing their ways.

Martin Luther said, The Holy Spirit is no skeptic. He has written neither doubt nor mere opinion into our hearts, but rather solid assurances, which are more sure and solid than all experience and even life itself. Praise God for the gift of his Holy Spirit. Through his power, we are guaranteed that whatever our doubts are, he will reveal the truth of his presence and lead us upward to the glory of God.