Timothy S. Morton
The relationship between faith and doubt as found in the Bible is a topic that is not often discussed among most believers. Because of the stigma often associated with doubt, when it is discussed the minister often speaks of it as applying to someone else; someone who lacks faith. Doubt is seen as a weakness, if not a sin, and no self-important preacher wants to give anyone the impression he has any doubt whatsoever (except maybe about you if you doubt him!). He must be seen as the pinnacle of faith.
However, faith and doubt are a team by the Lord's design. They are inseparable. Many of the Bible's most notable characters had both. Contrary to a common belief, doubt is NOT necessarily one's enemy. Few seem to realize that faith and doubt are not opposites. They are actually brothers, as we will see below. Many equate doubt with unbelief, but that is usually not the case at all. Your author is convinced there is a huge misunderstanding by many today of the place of faith and doubt in a believer's life. In this article we will address some of this issues.
In your author's view, any minister who refuses to admit that a measure of doubt exists in the life of all believers and is a part of the Christian condition by God's design, is shallow and immature. He is unable to effectively minister to anyone in this regard. How is one to grow in faith if he does not have a certain level of doubt to grow from? When a person becomes a believer in Christ, does he instantly have "all faith" and no doubt? Hardly. Most often he barely has enough faith to receive the Lord as his salvation. We all must constantly grow in faith from that point forward.
Faith and doubt are not difficult terms. Most treat them as opposites and contrary to each other, but this is true only in a very limited scope. They are more like brothers than opposites. First, some definitions.
Faith is famously defined in the Scriptures,
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Heb 11:1)
Notice how faith is based on substance and evidence. Another way to define it is,
a confidence, persuasion, or conviction that something unseen is true.
So biblical faith is when someone is convinced or persuaded that something is true and then acts on it. Concerning belief in Christ it is when one is convinced Christ's words are true, He died for our sins, and then rose from the dead. It is not a sense of hope ("I have faith my daughter will do the right thing"), or intention ("I acted in good faith...), but of belief and trust ("I have faith Christ died for me and I'm going to trust Him").
Doubt is generally defined as,
To waver or fluctuate in opinion; to hesitate; to be in uncertainty;
Sometimes in the Bible it refers to being perplexed or puzzled about something (John 13:22; Act 2:12). Other times it refers to understanding a riddle or difficult problem (Dan 5:12). But most generally it refers to having a lack of a certain degree of faith or confidence (Matt 21:21, Mark 11:23, Acts 10:20; 11:12, Rom 14:23, James 1:6).
Many today treat doubt and unbelief as pretty much synonymous, but that is not quite true. Doubt is when one is wavering in his opinion about something. He is not yet confident but still considering. Unbelief is when one decides to not accept or believe something.
Doubt is a lack of certainty; unbelief is a CHOICE not to believe or a refusal to believe.
Remember when Christ wept over Jerusalem and cried out,
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem...how often would I have gathered thy children together...and ye would not! (Mat 23:37, see also John 3:11, 5:40; Acts 7:51.)
The people chose not to come; they refused Christ in spite of the evidence (John 5:40). This is not doubt but unbelief.
One of the passages in the Bible your author can readily identify with is,
"...Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief." (Mar 9:24)
This was the cry of an honest father who wanted his demon possessed son delivered. He asked Jesus "but if thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us, and help us." The "if" expressed doubt because Christ's disciples could not cast the demon out. The Lord said, "If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth," and that is when the poor, distraught man said the above...and he got his wish in spite of his lingering doubts. His "unbelief" wasn't true unbelief because he asked Christ for help and said he believed first. He merely perceived his doubt as unbelief. If he held true unbelief he would not have wanted Christ to come and not begged Him to help hm. His self-described "unbelief" was actually a certain level of doubt.
This is a classic example of the Christian life; a struggle between faith and doubt, but this does not mean faith and doubt are necessarily opposites. They are much more alike than many realize.
Above we looked at the definitions of faith and doubt and saw how they are different, or at least consider things from a different perspective, but now lets consider a key element they have in common. One effective way to understand a concept is to look at its opposite. What is the opposite of faith? What is the opposite of doubt? Would you be surprised if those opposites are the same?
We saw that doubt is a lack of certainty. One is wavering in his opinion and not certain of the truth or facts. But what about faith, is it the opposite of doubt? Not at all, it is also defined as a lack of certainty!
We saw faith means being convinced of something unseen from considering the evidence, but that still reflects a lack of certainty because if something could be seen or proven then faith is not needed! (You don't need faith to tell you if you have a right hand [or not]. You can see and feel what the fact is.) So the opposite of both doubt AND faith is certainty. The only real difference is faith crosses a relative threshold between them where one becomes convinced of something he cannot see or prove. Before that threshold he was a doubter; after he has faith it is true.
Even the concept of creation is by faith,
Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear. (Heb 11:3)
We can't prove God created the heaven and the earth nor did we witness it, but we have seen enough evidence to convince us it is true...but the lack of absolute certainty leaves room for doubt. Faith is when one passes the threshold from doubt into belief; from "I'm not sure" to "I believe that is true;" but a level of "unprovability" is still present or else "faith" is no longer faith.
Your author has never seen the Matterhorn (a famous mountain in Switzerland), but he believes it exists. He has seen enough evidence such as eye witness accounts, photographs, etc. that he is convinced and thus has faith that it exists. Can he prove it exists? No. Is it possible that there has been a grand conspiracy to deceive the world into thinking a non-existing mountain exists? Yes, it is theoretically possible, but your author deems the evidence for it is much, much stronger than a suggestion against, and thus has faith.
The same is true with faith in the Bible and what it says. Many today either doubt it or flatly choose to not believe it, yet others do believe it. However, there are some who believe the Koran or book of Mormon instead. Each person is free to weigh the evidence he chooses and make his choice as he sees fit, but the consequence of that choice can last for eternity.
The Bible is clear that "without faith it is impossible to please [God]" (Heb 11:6). He has established faith as the means to receive access to Him and His promises. Of course, the Lord could open the sky and show the world undeniable proof that He exists and is who He says He is, but He doesn't want that. He wants people to weigh the evidence and seek Him for what He says in an ancient book. He wants people to work through their doubts and reason why they should have faith in Him and trust Him. He wants people to believe Him for what He says, not for what they may see.
The Lord designed man with a tendency to doubt, and a certain amount of skepticism is healthy. Remember in Acts 17 with the Bereans how they were skeptical of the message of the apostle Paul until they "searched the Scriptures"? They heard the words of a God called messenger who was commanded to minister to Gentiles like them yet they questioned his words and message...and were commended for it!
John said one must "try the spirits" (with the Scriptures) to determine if they are true. It is always prudent to be skeptical of any new "truth" or doctrine. Doubt can be healthy.
When doubt is not healthy and can be a hindrance is when one has been exposed to enough evidence to have faith but doesn't. This is where doubt is spoken of in the negative,
And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? (Mat 14:31)
Notice how "little faith" and "doubt" refer to the same condition of Peter's mind! "Little faith" is called "doubt." It all has to do with a relative perspective and degree. For instance,
If a person has faith to believe that God exists but not that Christ lived and died, he has a "measure" of faith but not near enough to be a Christian. If he believes in God AND that Christ lived and died, he has more faith but still too much doubt to pass the threshold. If he believes all the above PLUS that Christ died for his sins and rose from the grave and trusts in that but is not yet at the point where he can present his body as a "living sacrifice" in service (Rom 12:1), he has enough faith to be saved but still doubts he can fully live for the Lord (most believers remain in this state).
We Christians would say that one who only believes God exists and no more would be a doubter, but to his atheist friends he would be considered to have "faith." Its the same with believers. A mature and seasoned saint may look at a new believer who is hesitant to live for God as a doubter, but to his old worldly friends he is a fanatic who "found Jesus." Doubt turns into faith when a person's confidence grows through a certain threshold. Faith and doubt are much more alike than many of us initially realized.
In every scenario above there is a mingling of relative measures of faith and doubt. No matter what threshold of faith one passes there always remains an element of doubt. One may have enough faith in the right things to get saved but there remains doubt to live at the next level. As long as we live on this earth it will always be this way. The apostle Paul, himself, said he had not yet attained (Phi 3:12-14) and strove for the fullness of Christ.
When it comes to belief in Bible matters there are generally three classifications of doubt. One is when a person has doubts or skepticism about a particular non-essential doctrine or a system of belief, such as pre-millenialism, post-millenialism, a-millenialism, the time of the rapture, the order of end time events, and other beliefs that Christians can differ about. There are many variant beliefs among Christians and it is the duty of each believer to treat each view with skepticism until he is convinced on what the Bible actually says concerning the matter. This person is not doubting God or His word, he is simply being prudent in determining how His word is to be understood.
In Romans 14 Paul deals with believers having different levels of faith. In Rom 14:1 he speaks of one who is "weak in faith" compared to another who is stronger. In Rom 14:23 he says the weaker is one who "doubteth," so even the doubter has a degree of faith. Paul insists the weak is to be received and not argued with about his faith/doubt because he "is another man's servant." The Lord will deal with the "weak" brother in his own way. Contrary to the contentions of many, it is not the "strong" in faith's duty to judge and try to convince the "weak" that he should change his position. He is to instead accept him and love him as a brother.
The second level of doubt is when a believer questions some of the basic tenants of Christianity such as, is the Bible true, is it really God's word, did Jesus really exist and rise from the dead, does God really care and answer prayer, or does God even exist. This person is disturbed by his doubts and desperately wants answers, but he has not abandoned God or His truth. He is still facing towards the Lord seeking help and resolution wanting answers and satisfaction over what troubles him.
The third level of doubt is actually beyond doubt, it is unbelief as we described above. This person is NOT facing God for answers or help. He thinks he is convinced in his unbelief and is no longer seeking anything from God. He is truly an unbeliever.
The Lord set up this faith/doubt condition for a reason; it is a mechanism for growth. It is a natural part of the human experience. If a person had all faith (had certain knowledge and proof of everything so that faith was unneeded), how could he grow or learn anything? Doubt is one mechanism God uses to force us to reexamine our relationship with Him and His word.
The Lord does not expect anyone to merely have faith in faith. He doesn't expect "blind faith." He want us to reason out why we should believe Him; why we should trust Him. He has provided plenty of "substance" and "evidence" for us to consider Him. When a person is reasoning all this out in his heart doubt must be present. It is this skeptical doubt that actually drives one to examine the evidences, and that is good. What is not good is when one sees the evidences and understands their legitimacy but then chooses to not believe or act on them. This is true unbelief.
Doubts often come when things don't happen as expected. You may pray for a certain thing and feel it is a noble request, but God is silent. It seems your prayers don't make it past the ceiling. Then the thoughts come, "Does God even care?... or is He even there?" The doubts will drive us in one of two directions, one will either seek through the Scriptures or prayer why he is struggling with doubt or he will put it all aside as if God is unconcerned or doesn't exist. If you are a true believer you know the second option won't last long. Even if you back away from the Lord, He is always there in the back of your mind, waiting, even prodding you to come back.
I mentioned above how I can easily identify with the man with the demon possessed son in Mark 9. When he cried "help thou my unbelief" I'm thinking "I'm right there with you brother." Another passage along the same vein is in John 6. In that chapter the disciples are at a crossroads. They had just been called as disciples and had given up everything to follow the Lord. It was more than just the twelve. There were many disciples. After the Lord had fed the multitude he began to say some things that brought doubt to all of his disciples. He talked about being the "bread from heaven," "eating my flesh" and "drinking my blood," about the Lord drawing people to Him and so on. These words brought doubt and many "disciples" couldn't deal with them and "went back" (John 6:66). Then Jesus turned to the twelve and asked, "Will ye also go away?" And Peter replied,
Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God. (John 6:68-69)
Peter had the correct response. In spite of Christ's difficult words that brought doubt, where else is there to go? All the disciples that day had to make a decision. Many left but a few stayed. Life is all about struggle, choices, and growth, and the Lord uses faith and doubt to guarantee this struggle remains.
If it was not for doubts, mental debates, and simple spiritual curiosity we would soon stagnate into fruitless complacency.
Being a believer in Christ now for over 43 years has been an adventure for your author. Over the years there has been plenty of room for both faith and doubt, and a few times when doubts seemed stronger; when it would have been easy to just throw my hands up and say, "This Christianity thing is all a big joke...how can anyone really KNOW anything for certain...?" But as they were designed to do the doubts caused me to think on and ponder spiritual things MORE than I would without them. I had to think through all my questions and try to find answers, and the times there were no concrete answers, I had to determine just who or what was I going to trust; what was I going to count on.
Every individual has their own measure and type of doubts. Some doubt if they are really a believer; do they have enough faith to be saved; is the Bible true; is God real; etc. Your author's doubts are usually like the latter...he sometimes doubts God's very existence or at least His concern for creation.
His doubt process could go something like this,
Thoughts like this can challenge a person's complete outlook on life and reality. They force him to think on what is real and of value and what is not, and it is this mental struggle that the Lord desires. He wants us to think on these things and reason on them (Acts 17:2; 18:4; 24:25). Like Peter dealing with his doubts and denials, the Lord seems willing to let us wrestle with these conflicts and even become somewhat removed from him for a while so He will gain a more seasoned and mature child in the end.
One time years ago, not too long after he was saved, your author was having one of these doubt the Bible is God's word, doubt the Bible is true, etc. episodes and one morning after I woke up, for just a few seconds I had the darkest, coldest, most desolate, empty and destitute feeling overwhelm me. It was as if I was in hell for a minute and absolutely alone in the universe, separated from everything right, holy, and good. I was soon near to despondency and cried out to the Lord for help (kind of like Jonah). And then "the lights came back on." I was back in the world God created, the one I went to sleep in the night before, and one thing was running through my mind over and over, it was as if the Lord was saying, "Now you have a taste of what it is really like when I'm not around." That has been over 35 years ago, and I have never forgotten it.
The Lord purposely set up reality so there is enough evidence for one to believe He exists and is the creator of all, and there is also ample evidence to conclude the Bible is true. However, there is not so much evidence (actually proof) that it overwhelms. With the evidence the Lord also leaves room for one to doubt. He wants all to believe, but also have a choice. He will not compel anyone to believe either through coercion or overwhelming, undeniable proof. He demands people respond to Him with faith.
A Partial Exception
With the nation of Israel the Lord made a limited exception in manifesting the revelation of Himself. With them He openly showed His person and power to a greater extent. With the plagues in Egypt, Passover protection, pillars of fire, parting of the Red Sea, manifestations on Sinai, water from the rock, daily manna, etc., the Lord gave Israel many experiences that prove His existence. Yet in spite of all this Israel still rebelled and many turned from God.
Many unbelievers throughout history have stated, "Why doesn't God just show Himself in the sky and prove to all He is there...?" But with the case of Israel He pretty much did just that and though they believed for a while, many eventually fell away. This shows true belief in God is actually a heart induced desire that causes one to seek God for who He is and NOT because of outward manifestations of power and glory. In other words, "faith weeds out the phonies."
With both the opportunity for faith and doubt always present, exposing one's self to Scripture is the paramount cure for these faith/doubt struggles, even if one is having doubts about the Bible itself. "Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God." Scripture can influence a person even if he doubts Scripture. It is the "power" of God (Rom 1:26) and can discern the thoughts and intents of any heart (Heb 4:12).
Doubt can be a bridge from faith to stronger faith because it can drive one more into the Scriptures, prayer, and in reflection of spiritual things. If used correctly doubts can lead to a stronger faith and a closer walk.
When doubts arise in a believer's heart they should be treated as an opportunity for growth. We need to realize that even though the Lord has revealed great and precious thing to us, he has not revealed everything we may want to know. He still has many secrets (Deut 29:29), and some truths can only be taken by faith. If one doubts a particular tenet of Christianity he should pray, meditate on and study the issue until the Lord gives him a resolution.
In your author's case, when he has his deep all encompassing doubts, he reasons,
Exploit your doubts, dear believer. Use them as a cause to study and search out the truth. They are a natural part of the human and Christian experience and what you are going through is universal to all.
Practically every saint in the Bible had a measure of doubt one time or another. Abraham and Sarah doubted they would have a son (Gen 17:17-22); Moses doubted he could serve the Lord at all (Exo 3). Elijah doubted the power of God's message. David doubted John the Baptist doubted Jesus was the promised Messiah; Not to mention Thomas (and the others) doubting the resurrection. Paul even said he was "perplexed" when he suffered persecution (2Co 4:8). When one doubts he is in good company.