Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Faith and Doubt

There is an idea that circulates among Christians concerning doubt, that doubt is somehow necessary to faith, that it is a companion to faith and not its opposite. But when I read the Bible, I don't get that impression. For example, I think of Jesus' words in Mark 11:22-23.
Have faith in God. For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, “Be removed and be cast into the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says.
That does not sound to me like faith and doubt are to be companions. Rather, it sounds like doubt hinders faith. Or consider James 1:5-8:
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
Again, faith and doubt are not presented as companions meant to co-exist, but as opposites in such a way that faith is hindered by doubt.

The Greek word for “doubt,” diakrino, comes from two words: dia, through, and krino, to judge. It means to be of two minds, caught between two judgments, divided. It is what James calls a “double-minded man.” It does not lead to stability but to instability in all one’s ways. Imagine an automobile with two steering wheels manned by two drivers who want to go in two different directions.

The father of the young demon-possessed man that the disciples could not set free asked Jesus for help. Jesus answered, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” The man said, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). This man was in a state of doubt. He had two things going on inside him: He had faith but he also recognized that he had some unbelief going on inside himself, and he was divided between them. But notice that he did not say, “Lord, help me learn to live with this doubt, this divided state between belief and unbelief. Help me to see that they are not opposites after all but actually companions.”

While it may be a popular answer, and one I used to promote myself, I do not think that acquiescing to a companionship between faith and doubt is an effective way to receive the benefits of faith that God intends for us. It does not square up with what the Word says: “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). Faith pleases God and God rewards it. On the other hand, James says of the man who doubts, “Let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord.” Faith and doubt are incompatible.

We should never condemn anyone for having doubts about God or the Bible or the Christian faith, or else we would be doing the work of the “accuser of the brethren” instead of the work of the Good Shepherd. Though doubt indicates the presence of unbelief, by the same token, it is also evidence that there is faith at work as well as unbelief. Everyone goes through seasons of doubt, but that does not mean we have to stay there.

Nor should we deny the existence of doubt — as if that will make it go away — or that it is a problem that needs divine assistance. Remember, the father of the demon-possessed boy said, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.”

Ultimately, doubt is more a matter of the heart than of the mind — “and does not doubt in his heart,” Jesus said. There is an emotional and a volitional component to doubt as well as an intellectual one.

Faith does not come to us by reasoning but by revelation, through hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17). And it comes as a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8), not because we have reached an intelligent conclusion that is intellectually unassailable. Our ability to reason for or against faith is not greater than the gift graciously imparted by the Spirit of God.

A community of faith, love and acceptance for the one who needs help with their unbelief creates an atmosphere that encourages and allows one to grow beyond his doubt without feeling pressured.

Now, there is an important distinction to be made. My faith is in God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and my commitment is to the veracity of Scripture. But I make no claim of infallibility in my understanding of Scripture. My interpretations may be in error at some points. My theology has changed often and in many ways over the many years I have been a Christian, and I expect it will change some more. So, I will doubt my eyes and my ears, my feelings and my fears, my intellect and even my doubts — but then, I do not profess to have faith in myself. My faith is in God.