The Role of Doubt in Faith

“For most people who reject Christianity, their reasons for doing so are not usually intellectual, they’re personal.”

The book of the Bible called “The Letter to the Hebrews” was written to people who were discouraged, to the point of giving up. The reason? Because they didn’t see anything happening. They had put their faith in a God who loved them and cared about them, in a God whom they had been assured would hear their prayers when they called out to him, and yet their lives were characterized by frustration and difficulty.

Probably they knew that the promised salvation didn’t guarantee them a problem-free life – but they wondered: If God is good and loves me, then why are these bad things happening to me? They were struggling with doubt. They were weary and discouraged. And because of this, some of them were thinking of backing off of Christianity, or even turning their backs on it completely.

I’ve heard it said before that for most people who reject Christianity, their reasons for doing so are not intellectual (like not believing in the supernatural), they are personal. Something happened in their life which deeply hurt them or which they are frustrated with and can’t understand, and they wonder: Why? If there’s a supposedly a God who loves and cares about me, then why doesn’t he do more to make my life better?

There is a powerful statement found in the short New Testament letter of Jude:

“Have mercy on those who doubt.” – Jude 1:22

You can see that this is how God treats people who doubt as well. Think of Gideon, whom God called to do something, but then Gideon asked for a sign. Once he got the sign, he still wasn’t satisfied, so he asked for another sign! Rather than being a good practice that we should follow, Gideon’s requests for signs was essentially a lack of faith in God and his word, and yet – God was merciful towards Gideon.

Doubt is an inherent part of faith. If we could see everything, there would be no need for faith, but because we don’t see, we must have faith, and implicit to faith is doubt. Doubt is not necessarily the enemy of faith, it can actually be something that strengthens faith – but, there are different kinds of doubt: there is an honest form of doubt, which wants to believe but honestly struggles with some questions, and there is a cynical kind of doubt which says, “Don’t bother me with the facts, I’ve already made up my mind not to believe.”

In Timothy Keller’s book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, he writes:

A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection. Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts—not only their own, but their friends’ and neighbors’.

But even as believers should learn to look for reasons behind their faith, skeptics must learn to look for a type of faith hidden within their reasoning. All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternative beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A from a position of faith in Belief B. For example, if you doubt Christianity because ‘There can’t be just one true religion,’ you must recognize that this statement is itself an act of faith. No one can prove it empirically, and it is not a universal truth that everyone accepts. If you went to the Middle East and said, ‘There can’t be just one true religion,’ nearly everyone would say, ‘Why not?’ The reason you doubt Christianity’s Belief A is because you hold unprovable Belief B. Every doubt, therefore, is based on a leap of faith.

So, not only is doubt normal and even healthy (if handled properly), but all forms of doubt are based on faith and belief in something. May we be those who not only wrestle with questions and come to a stronger, more robust faith – but may we be those who doubt our doubts, and help others to do the same!

Have Mercy on those who Doubt

There are certain verses which don’t get as much air time as they deserve.

The Book of Jude is only one chapter long, but talk about one chapter that is packed with thoughts worth contemplating.

In verse 4, Jude addresses a particular kind of false teaching, which he says belongs to people who are ungodly. Namely: they pervert the grace of God and make it into a license to sin.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen that attitude amongst Christians more times than I can remember. It is incredibly common, and I believe it is related to the discussion of “free grace” and perceived value, which I wrote about last week.

Towards the end of his letter, Jude gives a call to action:

But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh. (Jude 1:20-23 ESV)

What I see here in Jude is a man who had a very important balance in his heart and in his message:

  • Pursue holiness!  Don’t compromise!  Preach the Gospel in truth, calling people to repentance!  
  • But show mercy to those who doubt. Be patient with people who are struggling with doubts, who have sincere questions, who are struggling to believe. 

There is a difference between a mocker and a doubter. A mocker is one who doesn’t even take the time to thoughtfully consider something – the kind of person who says: don’t confuse me with facts; I’ve already made up my mind.

A doubter though, is one who is willing to thoughtfully consider, but they have honest questions. I think this is where so many people are at in our society. I think this is where a lot of young people are at, coming out of high school, getting into college, as they begin to explore for themselves what it is that THEY believe, apart from their parents. Our posture towards them must be one of patience and mercy, helping them find real answers to their real questions.

The fact is, not everybody who isn’t a Christian is a hater. Some of them just have sincere doubts. And they are not to be seen or treated as enemies or adversaries.

The difference between sincere doubt and mocking doubt is portrayed very clearly in Genesis chapter 18, where God tells Abraham and Sarah that they are still going to have a baby, even though they’ve already been waiting for 18 years for that promise to come true. Sarah laughed, in a mocking “Yeah, right…” type of way.” Abraham asked, “Lord, how can I know that you will really come through on this promise?”

The difference was, Abraham was struggling to believe; he was struggling with sincere doubts. Sarah however had already determined in her heart that this whole thing about God’s promise to them was just a cruel joke.

May we have the posture that Jude had: No compromise, holiness for ourselves – and mercy and patience towards those who wrestle with sincere doubts.