I have a read a lot of modern Christian writers who paint the struggle of “doubt” as something positive, something inherent in spirituality, and something that should be accepted as a necessary component to a healthy Christian life.
That’s a nice sentiment, I suppose.
Except practically it’s a bit like offering a man dying of thirst a cup of liquid and saying, “I think it’s water, could be poison, but who am I to say for certain?”
Certainly doubt is something inherent to being human. In fact, it’s sort of part of our nature. The very nature we Christians are told to walk away from, the part of our nature that we are to die to when we are made new in Christ. Because doubt is the antithesis of faith. So, yes it is common, nearly everyone struggles with it, along with a whole host of other sins. Because ultimately, doubt is sin. It’s a lack of faith in the promises of God, it’s ultimately a lack of faith in him. It is often rooted in our own desires to make God into what we want him to be, and finding that he doesn’t fit into our own paradigm leads us to questioning who he is, and really questioning whether we want to follow him.
So defining doubt as a good thing, or a component of healthy spirituality might be among the more dangerous ideas I’ve heard. And is certainly not an idea you will find in Scripture.
Take the book of James for example,
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways
The philosopher Kiekegaard wrote an entire book spring-boarding off this idea of the “double-minded man”, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. I don’t actually recommend the book, unless you really enjoy reading heady philosophy, but he makes a good point here,
[the double-minded man] learns and yet never comes to a knowledge of truth. Or if he comes almost to it, then he quickly turns further and further away the more he learns of this confused and confusing instruction.
His point throughout the book is that when we are seeking truth, we find it. Truth practically smacks us in the face most of the time, but the question ultimately lies with whether we will it. Is Truth really our fixed desire? Or are we more like Pilate, who looked into Truth’s eyes and asked, “what is truth?”, and without waiting for an answer ultimately bowed to the desires of the masses and stepped aside to let Jesus be crucified.
Typically doubt arises within us when something we know about God or the world conflicts, and most often it has to do with our desire for God’s word to say something it doesn’t (or not to say something it does).
So that statement Jesus asks about counting the cost of following him was him legitimately telling us to count the cost.
Because following Jesus means our entire world shifts from being human and self-centered to being God-centered. And that means when we reach those hard places of faith we talk to him and we submit to him. We wrestle with him like the Psalmist, not in a way that denies his existence or questions his goodness, but in a way that admits God’s ways are difficult, sometimes they are hard to accept, but he has proved himself good over and over and over again. If we know him, there’s no doubt about him, only questions that come from a place of faith and trust and ultimately a desire to know and submit to him.
Like Job questioning his lot, but ultimately seeing God’s magnificence and acknowledging God’s goodness. Like the Psalmist lamenting but in the same breath praising God. Like Jesus asking the father to take the cup of suffering from him, but ultimately submitting to his fate.
Life is messy, and hard and often tragic, but without the assurance that our hope is secure then we really are tossed by the sea of ideas and tragedies and it is impossible to fix our desires on knowing and acting in truth. Doubt creates instability, but Jesus promises that when we follow him we are on a foundation of rock.
Doubt is often inevitable for many of us, but we have to recognize it as vice, not virtue. As something to surrender to God and overcome, not something to be nursed and allowed to choke our hope.
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me
Good points! I tend to agree with you. Doubt is something we should probably forgive ourselves for, but that doesn’t suddenly make it a noble pursuit or a virtue.
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Well said, any sin we relinquish to Christ shouldn’t bring us guilt, we ought to forgive ourselves everywhere he forgives us 🙂
Thanks for the comment!
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I agree that doubt is not a virtue, and that when we do doubt, we need to repent and seek to move to assurance in our salvation, trust in God’s goodness, and belief in his promises. A verse that I find helpful in this regard is Hebrews 11:6 – “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”
I do think that perhaps one reason why doubt is sometimes viewed as a positive thing is because certainty has somehow become equated with arrogance, and thus admitting doubt seems to be humble because we are admitting the limitations of our knowledge.
Another possibility is that people are reacting against the (general) cultural reluctance of a few generations ago to question God at all, even in the more positive model of the Psalms. However, like most reactions against the excesses of a previous generation, it became more extreme and instead of bringing before God and one another our honest questions and fears, it encouraged and approved of doubt, looking down on the certainty of childlike faith.
I don’t agree with either of my offered explanations for this phenomenon, but I find that it can sometimes be helpful to try to understand the roots of a position so that I can respond to it in thoughtful ways.
Thanks for your comment Sarah! I think you’re right about the root of this glorification of doubt, especially among the millenials. I’d even go further to say that it’s born out of post-modernism, and the change in thinking from absolutes to relativism. A relativist would assume anyone who approached things with certainty would be arrogant, but it seems to be a bit of a false humility to claim that we don’t know and that no one else really can, because then we don’t have to submit to anything.
I’m not sure what previous generational culture you’re referring to that didn’t question God though. Unless you’re referring to generations prior to the Reformation and Renaissance? I think all of us who live post-Renaissance operate under the assumption that authority can be questioned, but prior to that I would agree there was a unanimous assumption that individual questioning was not only abnormal but also wrong.
Once again, thank you for your insightful and thoughtful comment!
Thanks for the response, and I definitely should have been clearer about what I meant by a previous generational culture–I was actually referring more to the American church culture of the first half of the 20th century, although my comment probably applies better to pre-Renaissance Christianity. Of course, there were individuals who questioned the existence or character of God in the early part of the 20th century in the U.S. (particularly those who did not identify with Christianity), but it does seem that within churches of everyday people during that period it was much less common to express anger or confusion about why God does some things and not other things, and I think that some of this suppression may have influenced their children and grand-children to react by positively viewing any expression of doubt or frustration as being “authentic.” I suppose I am also thinking in these terms because of the “Jesus Movement” of the 60s and 70s and its reaction to the perceived fakeness of mainstream Christianity.
Thanks for your reply Sarah. I certainly agree that there were (and still are) pockets of Christians who approaches “faith” with an unquestioning blindness (which isn’t really faith). I agree that there is certainly a reaction to that, which seems to unfortunately have swung the pendulum to another extreme. It’s rather tragic that we can’t seem to find the center that values honest questions and sincere faith.
“Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”