Is doubt a good thing? Faith and doubt in the Bible

Source: Flickr
Source: Flickr

In my previous post I asked whether doubt in the Christian life is a good thing. In Greg Boyd’s book, “Benefit of the Doubt”, he answers – essentially – yes, doubt is a good thing. However, I questioned the care with which Boyd had come up with a definition of faith and doubt, and said that I would write another post looking at how I understood the Bible to talk about faith and doubt. This is that post.

At various points in this post I will point out where I disagree with Boyd, however I hope that this post will stand on its own and be readable without reading the book or my review of it.

First things first: What is faith?

I don’t want to focus on faith too much because I think the real meat of what I want to say is in looking at doubt. However, I think it would be helpful to start out by briefly thinking about faith.

The classic Biblical definition of faith, as Boyd points out in his book, is Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” In other words, the Christian life is in this life a lot to do with things that we cannot yet see, things which are invisible to our eyes – faith is the means by which we gain access to these things we cannot see and enter into God’s kingdom. If you study Hebrews, you’ll see that this world – although we can see it – is actually passing away; the world which we cannot yet see is the one which is unshakeable and will last forever. Faith is the means by which we go from one to the other.

But what else can we say about faith? I think the most important thing to say here is that faith is a gift. Faith does not come from within ourselves, it is not the case that we need to make ourselves psychologically certain. In Ephesians 2, Paul talks about our salvation, and he says: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God“. Peter O’Brien in his commentary says that the “this” refers not just to faith but to the whole process. Salvation is the Lord’s work from start to finish, he gives us faith as a gift.

This is backed up elsewhere. In Romans 12:3, Paul says: “do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” Notice that last part – it is enough to note for now that God is the one who gives faith.

One more reference – in John 6, Jesus has a dispute with the Jewish authorities. They do not believe in him for reasons which Jesus demonstrates are false. In this context, he says: “All those the Father gives me will come to me” (John 6:37). This whole section is highly significant: Christians – those who believe in Jesus – are seen as a gift from the Father to the Son. The Father is the one who brings people to the Son. This is another way of saying that faith is a gift of God. We cannot take the credit for it.

Why do I take the time to stress this? Because it runs so counter to Boyd’s accusation of a ‘certainty-seeking faith’. Faith can never be something which we psychologically work ourselves up to. A lot of people think of faith like Neo from the Matrix, when he first tries to do something he previously believed was impossible. Faith needed to be something which he built up in his own mind before he reached the full amount. In complete contrast, I believe that the Bible says faith is something which God gives to us as a gift.

So what of certainty? I’m not sure that what Boyd thinks of as ‘certainty’ in conservative circles is really to do with faith per se – but I won’t go into that now as I think it would be a deviation from thinking about the next topic…

What about doubt?

This is where I believe Boyd made some rather serious omissions in his book. Let’s think about what the Bible says about doubt, starting with (almost) the very beginning: Genesis 3.

Now the snake was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ (Genesis 3:1)

This is the first time that sin is recorded in the Bible. What does the serpent do to the woman here? In essence – he causes her to doubt God’s word. The serpent puts a doubt in the woman’s mind about what God really said. In fact, I believe that this is a model for how sin works in general: is sin not, at its root, doubt? We doubt that God is good. We doubt that God’s commands are good. We doubt that God knows best for us. We doubt that God has made us in a particular way. And so, we think that we know best and go our own way rather than God’s.

You will no doubt recall that God does not give Adam and Eve a hearty slap on the back and congratulate them for doubting. In fact, I think there is a real sense that by distrusting God’s words, Adam and Eve were distrusting God himself. There is a continuity between God’s words and Himself: God’s words are not simply arbitrary words, they spring from his very character. They are truthful, because God is truthful. They are righteous, because he is righteous. And so on. To distrust God’s Word is to distrust God himself.

This is a pattern we find echoed elsewhere in the Bible. Let’s just look at a couple of examples. Further on in Genesis, chapter 18, we read a rather curious story where “the LORD” himself comes to visit Abraham – “three men” come to see him. God had previously promised Abraham descendants, but as yet he and his wife were childless.

Then one of them said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.’

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‘After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?’

Then the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh and say, “Will I really have a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.’

Sarah here doubts that she will be able to have children given her age, and she is somewhat rebuked for it. Is this relevant to the matter of doubt as we have been discussing it? I believe that it does at least establish that there is a kind of doubt which is not commended – and once again, it has something to do with not believing or trusting in words or promises which God has given.

If we turn to Luke 1, we read a very similar story. An angel of the Lord appears to Zechariah, a priest, while he is serving at the altar. The angel tells him that he will have a son, but – just like Sarah – Zechariah doubts that this will happen:

Zechariah asked the angel, ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.’

The angel said to him, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.’

Once again, the angel doesn’t commend Zechariah for doubting God’s words: doubting God’s word is seen as doubting God himself. So, again, we have this connection between doubt and God’s word not being a good thing in God’s eyes.

And, of course, there is the classic example of ‘doubting Thomas’ (a rather unfortunate nickname). Does Jesus commend Thomas for not believing without seeing with his own eyes? No. Thomas should have believed Jesus when he said that he would rise again, and he should have believed his friends when they told him that they had seen Jesus alive. But, as Jesus says, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

Where does this leave us?

At the very least, I think it’s right to say that there is a kind of doubt which is most certainly not a good thing. G.K. Chesterton puts it so well, in his own inimitable style:

But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert — himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt — the Divine Reason. [Orthodoxy, source here]

I think that Chesterton really nails it here. Is doubt a good thing? Not when it comes to God’s promises and his Word. Boyd does a reasonable job in his book of showing that we need to put our trust in God even despite our difficulties. In many ways the story of Job is about having faith in God despite suffering, despite adverse circumstances – having faith that God is the one who knows what he is doing.

But Job is not about doubting God’s words. What does the Bible say about God’s Word, i.e. what does the Word of God say about the Word of God?

“Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” (Ps. 119:105)

“And the words of the Lord are flawless, like silver purified in a crucible, like gold refined seven times.” (Ps. 12:6)

“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isa. 55:10-11)

“And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.” (1 Thess. 2:13)

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12)

I hope that I have made my point. If we trust in God, we must trust in his Word – the Bible – as well as his Word, the Son. God’s words are perfect and pure, because God is perfect and pure. As God is, so he speaks. What we do with his Word will be determined by, and will itself determine, who we think God is.

Does this mean that Christians will never struggle with doubt, sometimes persistently? No. But doubt itself is not a virtuous thing, it is something which we need to struggle with rather than celebrate! I don’t want to discourage Christians here who are struggling with doubt, because it is something which all of us do from time to time – some more than others. It does not make you a bad Christian! But, on the other hand, it is not a good place to rest: pray, search the Scriptures, ask God for wisdom, ask God to reveal himself to you. Seek and you shall find.

What about difficult parts of the Bible? Does this mean that we will never have any difficulty in understanding the Bible, especially parts of the Old Testament which we find hard? No. There are still hard parts in Scripture, still parts we may struggle with. But ultimately our posture towards Scripture – towards God’s Word – must be one of humble obedience, rather than standing in judgement over Scripture. We must allow God’s Word – all of it – to be his Word. And, perhaps, when we do that, it will actually be the beginning of answering some of those nagging questions. That is certainly my experience.

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3 thoughts on “Is doubt a good thing? Faith and doubt in the Bible

  1. I am having lots of doubts at present. I am in a very dark place, and seem unable to climb out of it. Mostly it is to do with the relationship with my brother, and my reaction to it. He is hypermanic and has been for several days, and I have been reacting angrily, so much so that I feel I am becoming as bad as he is. I don’t feel as though my prayers have been answered, and am having serious doubts about God’s existence. This often comes with depression but it is much worse this time. I feel as though I may do something stupid if things carry on the way they are. I thought about going to a minister, but couldn’t bring myself to do it because I feel very negative towards the Church at present, which is why I have not been to church lately.

    • Hi Peter, I’m so sorry to hear that you’re in a dark place at the moment. I really hope that this blog post didn’t make you feel worse! I was responding to a particular view of doubt which is not the same as what you are going through. Many Christians are no strangers to doubt and depression, including my wife and several of my friends from college and other places. The well-known hymn writer and poet William Cowper suffered terribly with depression throughout his life. As the disciples say in Acts 14:22, ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God’.

      Remember that God’s promises hold true even when you don’t feel like they do, God still has a hold on you even if you don’t feel like you have a hold on him. Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28) Sometimes when God doesn’t seem to answer prayer, it’s because God sees the bigger picture and is answering your prayer in a way you don’t expect. He is in control, and he is good. I know it might feel impossible to believe that at the moment but it’s a promise of God (Romans 8:28) which is true whether or not we feel it.

      Please don’t do anything stupid! I will be praying for you and am very happy to talk if you would feel happy to do so.

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