“Why are you troubled, and why do questionings arise in your hearts?” Luke 24:38.
Trying to follow the Lord with doubt in your mind is like driving with the brakes on. You know the feeling, don’t you?
Anyone who doubts is actually in good company. There is Jeremiah, who in a fit of doubt, called God a “deceitful brook” (Jeremiah 15:18). There is Job, the sufferer, who lamented, “Oh, that I knew where I might find Him!” (Job 23:3). Then there is John the baptizer who sent to Jesus, asking, “Are you Him who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3). And of course, there is Thomas, one of the 12, who could not believe without seeing for himself (John 20:25).
And do you know what else? Even non-Christians have their doubts. C.S. Lewis wrote that as an atheist he used to go to bed wondering, “What if I’m all wrong? What if there is a God?”
In the New Testament there are six Greek words used for “doubt.” And all of them translate as “uncertainty.” To doubt, then, is to experience uncertainty about God.
But what is even more important is the effect doubting can have upon one’s faith. According to the Bible, doubt prohibits sincere worship (Matthew 28:17). Doubt hinders effective prayer (Mark 11:23), and even causes prayers to go unanswered (James 1:6).
So, doubts, literally uncertainties, are universal among believers and unbelievers alike. They were found from Job to Jeremiah to John the baptizer and Thomas. And they can be quite smothering to one’s faith.
The question is, how does one deal with them? Let’s go to the Bible and see.
First it is important to understand that there are several different types of doubt. One sort is emotional in character. These sort usually arrive during times of great trial, periods of stress, suffering, or death.
An example of this variety is to be found in the book of Job. Job is a righteous man who loves God but finds his children slain, his wealth shattered, and his health gone. All this, and there is the apparent silence of God. Doubts begin to assail his faith. And Job cries out, “Oh, that I knew where I might find Him!”
Job’s friends come to help him. But they seek to minister to him on the wrong level. They wrangle theologically and end up hurting more than they help, for Job’s doubts are primarily emotional, not intellectual.
You see, our hearts often have doubts our heads can’t solve. And with Job, the need wasn’t for logical evidence, ordered arguments, and intellectual affirmations. Job just needed to cry. He needed good listeners. He needed to rest, to feel his companions’ arms around him, and wait upon the Lord. And, I point out, when he got that, his doubts cleared up.
When I was in seminary I had a classmate named Ralph who, though he was studying for the ministry, was quite skeptical about God and scripture, and always viscously argumentative. I took some time to get to know him and oh, the pain he shared. His father had been very close to him, but he died of cancer when Ralph was sixteen. His mother was an alcoholic. A junior in college, Ralph had fallen madly in love with a woman. They discussed marriage, set a date, but his fiancée without warning eloped with another man who happened to be the young, single pastor of their church. Here Ralph was in seminary trying to prove himself worthy to God and to his now married girlfriend. His heart was brimming full of rejection, hurt, and anger at God. “How can He love me and let my father who was so alive die, and let my mother who is so dead, live? And how could He let a preacher steal my girl?”
There you have it: doubts of the emotions welling up from deep within the feelings. And these doubts are best handled as the book of Job teaches. Give it time. Lend Ralph your listening ear. Hug him. Minister to his self-esteem. Treat him as if he is worthy. Pray for him. Invite him over to eat. Wait for God to act.
What about you? Are you struggling with emotional doubts? If you’re not now, you will one day. The loss of a job, the sudden death of a loved one, a horrible bout with cancer — all this and quite often along come the first inner stirrings of doubt. William F. Buckley once said, “If I felt I were losing my faith I would lie down until I got over it.” Not bad advice. Not bad! For with rest and talking it out, affirmation and time, and, of course, the action of God, emotional doubts dissolve.
A second breed of doubts springs from the intellect. And a good example of this variety is that of doubting Thomas.
When informed of Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead, Thomas doubted, saying, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).
Thomas knew about life. And he knew about death. He’d seen many make the trip to the grave. And he knew it to be a one-way trip. “Why, when a man’s dead, he’s dead! I know this!” And he was not going to believe otherwise without some hard evidence.
It is interesting to note that intellectual doubts can come from lack of information and experience. They can even come from misinformation. And I, as a preacher, can’t help but point out that when Christ was there in church providing the evidence of His victory over death, Thomas was absent (John 20:24). He’d missed class, missed the information, and now he was entertaining doubt.
The other day I read an article written by an eye specialist. He pointed out that the human eye blinks about 25 times a minute. That being true, the author figured that if you got into your car and drove off averaging fifty miles an hour on a five hour trip, you’d cover 250 miles. But twenty of that would be driven with your eyes shut! That article cleared up a mystery about local traffic. People are driving around with their eyes shut! And, true, some of us approach Jesus Christ as Thomas did. There are some “blinks” in our attendance and study that lead to dark spots in our belief.
But back to Thomas. He missed church and he missed Christ. But he’d learned his lesson; he wouldn’t miss again. The Bible says that eight days later the church had gathered and Thomas was with them. Then Jesus came and offered Thomas the evidence necessary for his faith.
Note here very carefully how Thomas’ doubts didn’t chase him away from the church. They, rather, drew him back to it. Doubts of the intellect do not expel us from the learning, studying fellowship. They instead are an impetus to draw us in for further study.
So often in today’s church we’ve the attitude, “Believe or go! Trust or you’re not welcome here.”
Doubters are treated as leprous and made to dwell outside the camp. Yet the early church embraced Thomas in their midst. And it was there in a studious fellowship that Thomas recovered his faith.
Let’s not overlook this ministry in our midst today. Jude 22 encourages, “Convince some who doubt.” And James 3:17 reminds us that “the wisdom from above is … open to reason.” As Christians we need not feel threatened by debate, by hard questions, and honest investigations. God is well able to stand up to all this today much as He did for Thomas yesterday.
Here I might point out a real benefit of the doubt. You might say that honest intellectual doubts are no sin. They are rather a growing pain of the soul. When Thomas doubted, he stuck around to study the Word, to fellowship, and to worship. And that’s when Jesus came and submitted to him the proof of His resurrection. And Thomas responded by affirming, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). This affirmation of Thomas’ is one of the highest creedal statements of Jesus to be found uttered by human lips in the Bible. Others looked at Jesus and cried, “Master!” or “Savior!” or “Teacher” or “Healer.” But Thomas, the man who had worked through his doubts to faith, called him “God and Lord.”
When you are thrown from the saddle by intellectual doubts, stick around. Don’t let your doubts chase you away. You’re still welcome in the church. Do what Thomas did. Turn your doubts into questions and your questions into prayer, study, fellowship, discussion and experience. And soon you’ll find your doubts turning into lofty affirmations.
Personally I find this to be a key to spiritual growth. Why, I may doubt the Lord’s Supper to be a vital part of the Christian life. So, I use my doubts as a stimulus to investigate the sacrament. I read about it, pray over it, experience it, discuss it, meditate on it, and come away in awe of the beauty, power, and importance of the table. And it should be the same in your pilgrimage. If you’re having big doubts, what you need is a big commitment to study and chase down the answers just like Thomas.
For intellectual doubts the cure is always investigation. The principle here is to feed your faith with honest inquiry and your doubts will starve to death.
A third variety of doubt is the doubt of the will. This one, let me be quick to point out, is not a real doubt. It is rather unbelief masquerading as doubt.
Doubt, uncertainty, is actually a temptation of the emotion and intellect. If handled correctly as a stimulus for further study and fellowship, it leads on to growth, and maturity. However “unbelief” is sin. It is a stubborn will that has dug in its heels against God and said, “I won’t!”
An example of this sort of dishonest doubt is found n the Pharisees. Remember how they came to Jesus saying they had their doubts about Him? “Just do a sign, work a miracle, and we’ll believe in you” (Mark 15:32). And when Jesus worked a miracle, did they believe? No. They said, “He has a demon!” (Matthew 9:33-34).
This sort of doubt plays games with God. It’s the old “Heads, I win… Tails, you lose” trick. And at its core is sin, rebellion against God. Its motto is “The less I believe, the less I have to behave.”
A few years ago I was visiting in a family’s home. And their little 4 year old was misbehaving. The mother gave orders which went unheeded. So she said, “Johnny, you’re not listening to me.” And Johnny replied, “No, I’d rather not.” And, as adults with God, aren’t we often just the same? “I’d rather not!”
When we have doubts about God, we should carefully check our motives. Am I willing for this to be so? And if it is so, am I willing to obey? Or do I prefer doubt to belief as a sort of smokescreen so I can carry on without God’s interference in my life?
The only cure for this type doubt is repentance. As C. S. Lewis said, “Man is not only a sinner who needs to be forgiven; he is also a rebel who needs to lay down his arms.”
A son home from the University for Christmas holidays confided in his father. “Dad, I don’t believe in God anymore.” To which the father replied, “That’s okay, son. God still believes in you!” And it’s true! When Job found it hard to believe in God, besieged as he was with emotional doubts, God continued to believe in him. When Thomas’ faith was clouded by intellectual doubts and he found it hard to believe in the risen Jesus, all the while the risen Jesus believed in Thomas.
Our doubts don’t diminish God. They don’t diminish His love for us. And if handled with prayer, fellowship, and honest inquiry, our doubts need not diminish our faith. Instead, doubts can serve to increase it from “I won’t believe!” to “My Lord and my God!” And that’s the benefit of the doubt!
Lord, I believe. Help Thou mine unbelief. For Christ’s sake. Amen.