Monthly Archives: April 2010

Honest Doubt

Making a positive case for doubt from Bible verses is a tough job. Most
proof texts go the other way. Common sense would lead you to expect that
the Bible would come down on the side of certainty, confirmation, and
settled faith rather than encouraging doubt.

Indeed, most Bible verses that mention doubt in any sense castigate
it as something opposite of faith in God. To the Psalmist, doubt was
something for God to remove: “When doubts filled my mind, your comfort gave
me renewed hope and cheer.” (Psalms 94:19 NLT) James counseled followers of
Jesus to strenuously avoid doubt: “He who doubts is like a wave of the sea,
blown and tossed by the wind. {7} That man should not think he will receive
anything from the Lord..” (James 1:6b-7 NIV) When Thomas was unwilling at
first to accept the other disciples’ reports that Jesus had risen from the
tomb, Jesus presented himself to Thomas and chided him, “Stop doubting and
believe.” (John 20:27b NIV) Earlier, when Jesus had cursed a fig tree for
not having fruit when he was hungry, he told the disciples that vanquishing
doubt would bring them amazing spiritual power: “I tell you the truth, if
you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the
fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into
the sea,’ and it will be done.” (Matthew 21:21 NIV) These and a handful of
other Bible verses containing the word doubt are most often cited to condemn
harboring any shadow of a doubt and to encourage rock-solid faith.

Nevertheless, examples of people who strive to live by confident
faith in God but wrestle with doubt are abundant in both Hebrew and
Christian scripture. Gideon very distinctly heard God’s instructions for
saving Israel from invading nations who followed the god Baal. But he
continued to have questions and doubts. He pursued his doubts, asking God
to confirm his word by wetting a piece of fleece lying on dry ground one
night and wetting the ground while the fleece remained dry the next night.
(See Judges 6:36-40.) Gideon’s faith was strengthened through addressing
his doubts. The Psalms are full of the hymnists cataloging the
counter-evidence to God’s righteousness and care, but they resound with
assurances that overcome their doubts and lead them to greater expressions
of faith in God.

An incident in Jesus ministry provides a ray of hope for the
universal condition of doubt. Jesus had commissioned the disciples to
proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God, and to demonstrate God’s grace
through acts of healing. A man whose son was wracked by terrible seizures
brought him to the place he thought Jesus would be, hoping that Jesus would
heal the boy. Jesus was away (meeting Moses and Elijah on the mountain of
transfiguration), and the disciples could not do anything for the man and
his son. When Jesus returned from the mountain, the boy’s father expressed
his frustrations with his son’s medical condition and the inability of the
disciples to help. He was somewhat doubtful that Jesus could do anything,
but he continued to work through his doubts as he presented his case
directly to Jesus. The father said to Jesus, “If you can do anything, take
pity on us and help us.” {23} “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is
possible for him who believes.” {24} Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed,
“I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22b-24 NIV) Jesus
healed the boy, and the father appears to have worked through the doubts and
contrary evidence to arrive at more confident faith in Jesus.

Every person alive faces doubts and questions, even the most ardent
followers of Jesus. Many observers of this most human condition have
differentiated between the toxic kind of doubts that harden into cynicism on
one hand, and quizzical doubts that heighten desire to ask productive
questions and to find deeper insights on the other. St. Augustine stated
broadly, “Doubt is but another element of faith.” Doubt can be the
beginning point for inquiries that lead to personal faith. Jonathan Sacks,
Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth puts it, “To be without
questions is not a sign of faith, but of lack of depth.” “We ask questions,”
he says, “not because we doubt, but because we believe.” One of the most
instructive seekers after Christian faith and one of the most forthright
encouragers to followers of Jesus, C. S. Lewis, wrote: “If ours is an
examined faith, we should be unafraid to doubt. If doubt is eventually
justified, we were believing what clearly was not worth believing. But if
doubt is answered, our faith has grown stronger. It knows God more certainly
and it can enjoy God more deeply.”

One of the best known quotations about the positive role of doubt is
this couplet: “There lives more faith in honest doubt,/Believe me, than in
half the creeds.” The lines are from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam.
The poem was written through a personal maelstrom of grief and loss,
naturalistic challenges, spiritual questions and doubts raised by the death
of Tennyson’s beloved best friend, Arthur Henry Hallam in 1833. Tennyson
finished the poem 17 years later The poet struggles through the painful
counter evidence to God’s goodness compiled in his grief, and indeed during
the life of his friend and Arthur’s quest for faith. Many scholars believe
that the Prologue may have been some of the last words of the poem written,
and they express the vibrant faith Tennyson acquired by addressing and
pursuing his doubts and questions. The Victorian language falls strangely
on our ears, but the journey from doubt, grief, and loss to faith and hope
ring true. Follow the poetic path from honest doubt to deeper faith:

XCVI
You tell me, doubt is Devil-born.
I know not: one indeed I knew
In many a subtle question versed,
Who touch’d a jarring lyre at first,
But ever strove to make it true:
Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
At last he beat his music out.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
He fought his doubts and gather’d strength,
He would not make his judgment blind,
He faced the spectres of the mind
And laid them: thus he came at length
To find a stronger faith his own;
And Power was with him in the night,
Which makes the darkness and the light,
And dwells not in the light alone,
But in the darkness and the cloud

LV
I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.

Prologue
Strong Son of God, immortal Love,
Whom we, that have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone, embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;
Thine are these orbs of light and shade..
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.
We have but faith: we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see;
And yet we trust it comes from thee.
(Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam, 1849)

Doubts that continue to strive and question until renewed hope and faith
emerge can be a positive path to deeper faith in God. Don’t let your doubts
– and we all have them – drive you into an abyss of cynicism. Pray with the
father who came to Jesus seeking healing, “I do believe; help me overcome my
unbelief!”

– J. Edward Culpepper

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