What Doubt Reveals

It’s week 2 of the Dealing with It series and our topic is Doubt. Every believer experiences Doubt at times, some of us more than others. Using examples from Scripture of fellow doubters, we have some insight as to what doubt reveals in the person experiencing it: 

1. Doubt Reveals…Humility

An agnostic friend of mine tells me that part of the reason he won’t call himself an atheist is the apparent arrogance of the claim, “There is absolutely no God”. Despite the fact that he generally agrees with the sentiment, he finds the posture of an atheistic stance unappealing, maybe even intellectually dishonest. “We can’t be that certain of anything,” he says.

I mostly agree with him. Even when I’ve questioned my own theism, it has been difficult to get on board with the likes of Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens because, frankly, they’re kind of jerks about it. Sure, they have educations and letters after their names and are respected in their individual fields of study (journalism, biology, neuroscience) but when you evaluate the attitude behind their arguments, much of it smacks of arrogance. 

“I’m right, you’re wrong, and to depart from my assessment of reality is the height of delusion and foolishness.” To the person investigating the atheist worldview, it’s kind of a put off. 

It cuts both ways. We can all think of Christians who are equally as puffed up and obnoxious about the certainty of their beliefs. Many a Christian’s attitude has actually driven people from the church and faith altogether.

 I’m personally inclined to raise an eyebrow at anyone who asserts that they’ve got it all figured out, no matter what side of the “Does God exist?” question they land on. Even some agnostics, who by definition are not committed to either answer, can sometimes present a lack of commitment as the truly enlightened position: “You can’t really know anything.” Oh really? How do you know that?

Absolute certainty leaves no room for the possibility of things outside of my perception. But if one doubts their certitude, it opens up room for the potential expansion of their understanding. The humility that can be found in a healthy amount of doubt confesses, “I am not God. I am not omniscient. Reality exceeds my perceptions of it. I could be wrong.” Even the Apostle Paul confessed: “For now we see through a glass darkly; …now I know only in part…” (1 Cor 13:12)

A great example of this is everyone’s favorite bummer of a book: Job. After suffering every tragedy imaginable, Job quite honestly has some doubts. He doubts God’s character, he doubts God’s goodness, he doubts God’s providence, he accuses God of silence and absence long before Nietzche or Ricky Gervais made that sort of thing en vogue.

 Job’s buddies, on the other hand, are completely doubtless about God. They are certain that Job’s situation is God’s judgment against some sort of sin (it wasn’t). They are certain that if Job just stops whining, God will reinstate him. With confidence, they speak on God’s behalf, using absolute language like “God never” or “God always”. They rebuke Job’s doubts with exhaustive speeches (about 21 chapters worth, in fact). 

But the twist of Job’s story is in the last chapter when God shows up and speaks for Himself, not only to Job but to his gaggle of hyper-certain friends. Guess what He says to them? I’ll give you a clue: it’s not a raving endorsement:

“I am angry with you…because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7b)

In the end, God uplifts the honest doubter rather than the arrogant and certain men of piety. Doubt reveals humility, which leaves room for God to show us something new, revealing that there is always more for us to learn. 

2. Doubt Reveals…Honesty

Doubt can have a clarifying effect on our beliefs and convictions, depending on what causes it. Rather than a crisis of intellect, a more common cause of doubt among Christians is temptation. It’s really inconvenient to believe in something that hinders your desires and, if we’re motivated, we can find objections. When reflecting on his three decades of committed atheism, C.S. Lewis wrote:

No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred than the word Interference.  But Christianity placed at the center what then seemed to me a Transcendental Interferer.”

You see this all the time when it comes to God’s rules for Christian sexuality: those who find that their desire lies outside of God’s prescribed sexual plan will be the first to question the validity of Scripture. Suddenly, we wonder if Paul “really meant that” or if Jesus’ words were mistranslated. No new information has come light regarding the text, but doubts come when my desires are in conflict with my beliefs. If I believe God exists, then I believe that He will hold me accountable for behavior that He doesn’t approve of. Might be easier, then, to disbelieve in God rather than change my behavior. 

Though I might strive for intellectual honesty, I am not a logic machine or a probability computer. I am complex, emotional being whose outlook on life can be effected by things other than pure rationale. So was John the Baptist, whose own moment of doubt proves highly relatable. 

John had more evidence than most people in order to express faith in Jesus as Messiah. He had prophetic insight (Matt. 3:1-3). He was an eye-witness to God’s official endorsement of Jesus (John 1:32-34). He was an avid student of the Messianic Scriptures predicting the coming of Jesus. Heck, he was Jesus’ own cousin and surely aware of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. He was the one to first publicly point out Jesus and go “Yes! This is the guy! I’m sure of it!” (John 1:29-31). He had all the reason in the world to be totally certain.

Until he was thrown in prison. 

This is where Disappointment (last week’s topic) and Doubt are linked. If God does not live up to our expectations of Him, we tend to doubt him altogether. I’d wager that John was not expecting Jesus to let him rot in prison or be executed by Herod. After all, Messiah was prophesied to “set captives free”, among other things. When John gets word that Jesus is busy doing all the other things except setting him – a captive – free, it’s hard to blame John for doubting. He sends a couple of his disciples to ask Jesus: Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Luke 7:20)

J. Warner Wallace points out how Jesus’ response to this question is fascinating not just because of what he says, but what he doesn’t say:

”[Jesus] could have condemned John but He didn’t. He could have scolded him for his failure to trust… but Jesus didn’t do that either. Finally, Jesus could have instructed John to simply trust in what he had been raised to know, but that’s not what Jesus did. Instead, Jesus provided John with evidence.”

Jesus’ response to John’s doubt was twofold: he invited John’s disciples to witness the following miracles he would perform, then had them return to John with eye-witness accounts as evidence: 

“Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the gospel preached to them. Blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” (Luke 7:22-23)

That last little beatitude he offers at the end must have spoke directly at the heart of John’s doubt, and I find it remarkably tender: “John, please do not reject me because I am not what you expected.” Jesus being Jesus, he likely knew that John’s doubt had roots beneath the data, so he offers assurance as well as evidence in the face of doubt.  

3. Doubt Reveals…the Desire for Truth

In his book Know Doubt, John Ortberg writes: 

“As hunger prompts our stomachs to find food, doubts prompt our minds to find reality.”

I love this quote because it reminds us that doubt is a morally neutral condition meant to prompt a response, same as hunger or thirst. It is neither sin nor failure. When we are gifted with uncertainty, we are prompted to seek out answers, something Jesus explicitly endorsed when he said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Matt. 7:7) The late Dallas Willard reminds us:

“Followers of Jesus are required to pursue truth wherever it leads them.”

In other words, follow the evidence

We have a great example of this in the disciple Thomas, nicknamed “Doubting Thomas” by most of Christendom. He’s more or less a peripheral character in the Gospels until we get to Easter Sunday when the rest of disciples inform him that they’ve seen Jesus alive. True to his nickname, Thomas isn’t buying it. Instead, he doubles down on the condition for his belief: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25)

In short, “Gimme proof.” As a rule, Thomas would not express belief without good reason to believe. Without evidence. If that smacks of stubbornness to us, it didn’t seem to for Jesus, who obliged Thomas a week later: 

“Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’ Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” (John 20:27-28)

Unfortunately, the Church has historically portrayed Thomas as something of a cautionary tale of faithlessness, but we need to remember that Doubt and Faithlessness (or Unbelief) are not the same thing. Doubt is a lack of certainty, and faith is a response to lack of certainty. In that sense, Faith isn’t possible unless there is room for doubt. I’d argue that Thomas exemplifies excellent faith while maintaining a commitment to Truth-seeking. 

The longer I do this Christianity thing, the more I’ve come to realize that faith is less a matter of believing certain bits of information and more a matter of putting trust in a Person. This Person not only encouraged us to relentlessly pursue the truth, but He also identifies Himself as the Truth (John 14:6). He equated truth-seeking with seeking Himself. If doubt, as uncomfortable as it is, will motivate me to ask, seek, and knock, then it is right to see Doubt as a blessing instead of a failure; for out of Doubt, Faith is made possible. 

For further thoughts on Doubt: 

Doubt is not Unbelief

Why are Christians Afraid of Doubt

How Jesus Responded to Doubt

Doubt Has an Important Role in Developing Your Faith

Doubt: When it’s Beneficial for Christians

Faith and Doubt

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