In Christianity, many people appear to be very certain in their beliefs. They are assured or certain their beliefs are true. How is it that I believe, but still manage to have doubts?
I appreciate your question. It is honest, and to be honest, I can relate. You are not alone as one who has faith – who wants to have faith – but who is still plagued with frequent doubts. In fact, it is one thing that motivated me to choose my field of study. In many ways, my studies are a way for me to work through my doubts and seek answers for my questions.
Doubt can arouse in us a sense of shame, as we get frustrated by our lack of faith. We read Jesus, like his question to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31) and cannot help but perceive it as weakness. Passages like James 1:8 do not necessarily help our guilt when it says the one who doubts is “double-minded and unstable in all they do.” The Bible certainly does not commend doubt.
Yet, there is encouragement. If doubt is a sin, it is certainly one common to all. I have always been encouraged by the father who pleads with Jesus, “I do believe. Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
So, how do we make sense of this? I do not want – as so many do – to present doubt as a modern virtue. Yet, I do want to account for it being a common condition worthy of sympathy and for which there is hope.
At its root, doubt is the emotional conflict that occurs when our beliefs meet a contrary or rival belief. That is, contrary experiences, opposition, unpopularity or temptations confront our beliefs, and we experience the emotional tension. For example, I may believe in the God who answers the prayers of the faithful. However, if I have an experience where my prayers go unanswered, a rival belief arises: that God does not really exist, that God does not really answer prayer or that I am unfaithful. Suddenly, I find myself in doubt and emotional crisis.
Experience and the Bible tell us this state of doubt is not good. Experientially, if feels terrible, and we will seek to resolve it. Biblically, it is a place of wavering and, as James 1:5-7 puts it, it tosses us around with the wind.
Thus, I cannot, with so many, extoll doubt as a virtue. The Bible, reason and experience all tell me knowledge and assurance is better than doubt and uncertainty. Nevertheless, doubt can work a good result. As rival beliefs arise in conflict with our previous held beliefs, we are challenged to faithfulness. Faithfulness here is not to blindly persist in unwarranted belief as some define it. Rather, we are challenged to come back to reason to pursue the truth and seek what is good. It is no virtue to persist doubtlessly in false beliefs. Neither is it virtuous to jettison our beliefs at the first experience of opposition, tension, temptation or emotional distress. Rather, our state of doubt challenges us to pursue the truth. Faithfulness is persistence when our beliefs are true, and we hold to them in the face of false rivals. Faithfulness is also repentance when our previously held beliefs are false, and we adjust to bring our lives into conformity with the truth.
Theophilus, I hope you continue to be a seeker of what is true and that you grow in ever-increasing assurance. However, when (and I do mean when) you experience doubt, take it as an opportunity to grow in knowledge and faith as your beliefs are tried and tested. Let go of what is false, and hold fast to what is true.
Do you have your own question to ask? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and use the subject line “Dear Theophilus.” Check back in two weeks for the next post in our series! To learn more about the College of Theology at GCU, visit our website or contact us using the Request More Information form.