This statement may seem counter-intuitive. It is contrary to the way most religious people speak about doubt. Most religious people speak about doubt as something to be feared and avoided. They speak of doubt as the opposite of faith, the destroyer of faith. We should believe and not doubt, right? Just believe. Faith is certainty, doubt is uncertainty. Faith is trusting, doubt is distrusting. Faith is believing and doubt is unbelief, right?
How then can I speak of doubt as something positive, as part of faith?
First I want to clarify something.
Doubt is not the same thing as Unbelief
When I speak of doubt, I am not speaking about unbelief. Unbelief surely is the opposite of faith. Certainly one meaning of doubt could be unbelief. But all doubt is not unbelief.
Doubt is when you have questions. Doubt is when you want to believe but you have difficulty believing. Unbelief does not seek belief. Doubt seeks belief. Doubt seeks to understand our belief. Doubt challenges us to understand why we believe. Unbelief Unbelief seeks to explain why we do not believe. Unbelief turns us away from God. Doubt turns us towards God. Doubt reaches for faith. Unbelief draws us away from faith.
Doubt is honest. Doubt is real. Doubt is part of life. If you have not doubted in your life, you have not truly believed in anything. If you have never had your beliefs challenged to the point that you have doubted, then you have an untested, untried faith.
Faith that cannot handle questions and doubts is a weak and immature faith. A mature faith is not an unquestioning certainty. Real faith is not blind faith.
Faith that is honest says, like the father who brought his young son to Jesus to be healed,
“Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!”
This one of the most honest, desperate, beautiful expressions of faith in the Bible. This father brought his son to Jesus because no one else could help his son. He was desperate to find help for his son. He brought his son to Jesus and said, “if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”
Can you feel the desperation and the helplessness in his plea? It breaks my heart. It is so honest, so real, so raw.
He did not know much about Jesus except that he was a Healer. He came to Jesus because he loved his child. He was willing to do anything to help his child.
Jesus answered him, “If I am able? Anything is possible for the one who believes!”
The man’s response is so honest. “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!” He believed. He wanted to believe. He needed to believe. But he still had doubts. He still had questions. But he chose trust God in spite of his doubts. He just wanted his boy to be healed. He wanted his son to be made whole. With everything in him, he WANTED to believe.
And Jesus healed his son.
Jesus didn’t turn him away. He didn’t say, “You have to believe without any shred of doubt, or it won’t work!” He didn’t tell him to use some “faith formula”. He didn’t tell him to “maintain his positive confession” or he may never get or may lose his healing. He accepted the man’s honest, humble faith–faith that still had some doubts, but wanted to believe–and healed his son.
I believe that faith that never doubts cannot grow. I truly believe this. Each and every one of the Apostles faced doubt. Peter faced doubt several times. He faced doubt when he walked on the water. He sank. But he’s the only one of the disciples who even got out of the boat! He’s the only one besides Jesus who can say he walked on water even if just for a moment. Peter also denied Christ three times. Yet Jesus called him “the Rock”.
Famously, Thomas doubted Jesus’ resurrection. He said he couldn’t believe unless he put his hands in the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet and side. Jesus did not shame him or turn him away. He showed him his hands, his feet, and his side. Thomas, my namesake, was never the same after that. His response is amazing.
Thomas fell to his knees before the Risen Christ and said, “My Lord and My God!”
His faith was made whole through doubt. His faith after going through doubt was stronger than ever. It is Thomas who brought Christianity farther east than any other Apostle. He brought the Gospel as far as India, where he eventually gave his own life for his faith. What gave him such confidence that he could do this? He went through doubt and his faith was tested and tried and came out the other side deeper and more solid than ever before.
My own faith has been tested in some very deep ways. My wife and I lost a child several years ago. The loss shook my faith to its core. It caused me to question and doubt everything I believed, and everything I had ever been taught about God.
I was so angry at God. I raged. I screamed. I even cursed at God. And he did not turn me away. He did not punish me. God was able to handle my anger. He was able to handle my questions.
My grief brought me to question the very goodness of God. I will tell you that I did reach a place where I had to decide whether I was going to walk away from my faith in Christ. I remember very clearly coming to a spiritual crossroad.
I heard, not in an audible voice, but in my heart, God asking me, “Can you still trust me? Even though you blame me for the death of your child, will you still trust me?”
I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure I could trust God anymore. I still had so many questions. I looked out into the abyss, and contemplated what it would mean for me to walk away from my faith. The very thought filled me with despair, and in that moment, I chose. I chose to trust God in spite of my grief, in spite of my anger. I said to him, “Yes.”
And in that moment, the war in my soul was over. I felt the love of God flood my heart and an amazing peace overwhelmed me. I still had–and still have–many questions. I did not receive answers to most of these questions. But I can tell you that my faith is deeper and more confident than it ever was before. My experience with doubt has led me to a stronger faith than I ever had before.
If we do not ask questions, if we never have any doubts, our faith is not challenged and cannot grow.
Too often, we settle for the comfortable certainty of simplistic, unthinking “pat” answers to the tougher questions that are spoon fed to us by preachers, or, and even emails. We allow a preacher to give us the answers without actually wrestling with them ourselves, when life brings tragedy and difficulty our way, we may suddenly realize that these “answers” aren’t answers at all.
In the Bible, Jacob wrestles with a man, who is later revealed to be God himself. Some see this as a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ. Jacob wrestles with him and refuses to let him go until he blesses him. God then blesses Jacob and changes his name to Israel, which means, “He wrestles with God”. The patriarch and founder of the whole Jewish nation blessed and set apart because he wrestled with God. And I believe God wants us to wrestle with him until we are blessed.
When we ask the hard questions we wrestle with God.
Question your beliefs. Ask the tough questions. Ask them without fear.
If your faith cannot stand up under scrutiny, what good is it? If it cannot bear the storms of life, what good is it?
If our faith cannot countenance questions, how can it stand when life forces those questions upon us?
If our faith is true, it can stand up under scrutiny.
And if our faith is not, in fact, true, then we do not need to believe it any longer. Either way, Doubt is a good thing. It will bring the truth to light.
I challenge you to ask the questions that nag you. I challenge you to not just take someone’s word for it. Eschew easy, “pat” answers to the hard questions. Let the questions bring you to the crossroads.
Don’t accept the easy answers. Don’t just file away these “pat” answers given to you by some preacher as “ammunition” to use when some skeptic asks you difficult questions. That is a terrible trap. That is like copying the answers from the back of the book without knowing how to work the problems yourself. It leaves you totally unprepared for real challenges to your faith.
Wrestle with the questions yourself. Wrestle with God.
Let the questions unsettle you. Let them cause you to doubt. It is okay. God can handle your questions. He is not afraid of them. We shouldn’t be either.
If you have never wrestled with the questions yourself, the easy answers given to us by others will likely end up being little more than empty platitudes. They won’t really answer anything. When you real struggles, these platitudes offer little if any comfort or support.
Doubt forces you to understand why you believe. Doubt allows you to “own” your faith. Once you have been through doubt and come through the other side, you no longer merely believe because someone else told you what to believe. You have come to believe it for yourself. It is your faith. Not your parents’ faith, not your church’s faith, not your preacher’s faith. It is yours.
Doubt can be a pathway to spiritual maturity. We need not fear it or try to avoid it. Doubt can be painful at times, but if we embrace it and fearlessly confront our doubts, it can lead us to a deeper relationship with God.
Doubt is not the opposite of faith. It is a prerequisite for a truly deep and mature faith.
I would love for you to share with me your journey through doubt to true deep faith. Please share your experiences and thoughts.