The issue of doubt is too big to deal with in a short piece such as this. Yet it is also too important not to get out in the open. Therefore, in the hope of promoting fruitful reflection and conversation, I want to offer ten thoughts about doubt arising from reflection on the Scriptures, my own experience, and conversation with others.
1. In one important sense at least, doubt is not good. “He who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6). This is not the most upbeat place to start, but it is important. We need to proceed with care here. I do not believe James is condemning every form and moment of doubt. From one point of view, doubt is inevitable and even necessary. In order to understand something deeply, we often need to raise questions and imagine objections. This kind of inquiring doubt can feel threatening, and needs to be handled with care, but in and of itself it is not what James has in mind. Christians should not flee from it; it is part of a process of faith seeking understanding. Where things are different, however, is when faith itself comes unstuck. This is the doubt James has in mind: doubt that is real, personally felt uncertainty about the truth of what has been believed. In some ways our world praises even this kind of doubt. Confidence can be frowned upon as arrogant; deep agnosticism is labeled humility. There can be a kind of appeal in the “authenticity” of doubt. Yet Christians should be very wary of this attitude. Fundamentally, faith is a matter of confidence and conviction (Hebrews 11:1). Our goal is not to be shaken, but firm. Let us not be content to be doubters.
2. Yet doubt happens to Christians — even deep, personal doubt. It happened to the apostle Peter (Luke 22:31–34); it happened to those who saw the risen Jesus (Matt 28:17); it can happen to us. And “happen” is the right word. To some extent, of course, doubts are a product of choices we make, decisions that can be sinful. Often, though, we can only see these in retrospect, and the experience of finding oneself amidst doubts is also something that can take you by surprise. Like an uninvited and slightly off-putting visitor, doubt can simply appear, leaving us with only one practical question, what do I do now?
3. Doubt is not denial — although it feels like it is, and powerful forces want us to think it is (on this, see below). But to doubt is not to give up. To be uncertain is not to abandon. In The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the Devil speaks this way about tempting the saints: “They can contemplate such depths of belief and disbelief at the same moment that sometimes it really seems that they are within a hair’s-breadth of being ‘turned upside down’”. The apostle Paul, a more reliable authority, says this: “The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim 2:11–13). Perhaps we may see here a distinction between faithlessness and denial. Denial is, to be sure, the horizon towards which faithlessness heads; but it is not there yet. Just because you have come unstuck, it doesn’t mean it’s all over.
4. Doubt is spiritual. “The Devil,” writes Peter, “prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8). If that is true, then doubt is a spiritual issue, never just an intellectual one. Thinking about the truthfulness of Christianity is not something that is spiritually neutral: it is part of a war. This is why in Psalm 73, one of the most powerful accounts of doubt in the Bible, the psalmist’s experience of doubt is overcome not, finally, through just clear thinking or intellectual effort, but through an act of worship. Indeed, when the psalmist “tried to understand”, he could not, “until I went into the sanctuary; then I perceived…” (Psalm 73:16–17). In one way or another, deep doubt is always a spiritual matter.
5. Yet doubt is not just spiritual. In the midst of doubt, though, a spiritual experience is often precisely what it does not feel like! In the midst of doubt, the existence of spiritual realities can be the very thing that is up for grabs. If we knew it was a spiritual battle, we wouldn’t be doubting! But the substance of doubt is mostly real, and often fairly “non-spiritual” questions, perhaps historical, philosophical, scientific. Doubt thus often has what we might call a double aspect: it is a spiritual struggle, yet anchored in questions that need not be seen spiritually. This double aspect of doubt makes it tricky; because on the one hand, we can’t only treat it as a spiritual reality as that would be to just avoid the real issues. But on the other hand, to not treat doubt as spiritual is already to give the game away. Because if, in fact, our doubts are mistaken, and Christianity is true, then doubt is anything but just a matter for careful thought and rationality. When I counsel Christians going through periods of doubt, therefore, I often encourage them to, at least some of the time, engage with their doubts as if Christianity is true, which means treating their doubt as a spiritual struggle, as well as an intellectual one.
6. For this, and other reasons, doubt is hard. Doubt is hard because faith is important and good. Faith is not just one opinion among many others we hold; it is the ground of our identity, our whole way of looking at the world, our outlook on life. For this to be called into question is like suddenly feeling the floor move below you. Everything seems up for grabs. Doubt can be a terribly distressing experience, and this distress can itself be a temptation. We can feel that we simply cannot go on torn and unsteady, hypocritical and uncertain, such that the prospect of release from the struggle becomes very attractive. Being a Christian always involves wrestling with difficult questions. One of the attractions of unbelief — at least from the somewhat ignorant perspective of the believer — can be not having to worry about things so much.
7. Doubts have a tendency to multiply. “Do not give the Devil a foothold”, writes Paul, talking about anger (Eph 4:27). The same idea applies to doubt. One nagging question can lead to a whole range of other questions and suspicions. Everything starts to look shaky. This is tricky, because we can lose sight of what we’re really concerned about. We can no longer put our finger on what it is we are worried about; it’s just the whole thing. And then we don’t know where to start thinking, so we just let it sit. This is dangerous, because the cumulative weight of all our questions can be much more than the sum of all of them individually. When we find ourselves in the midst of this experience, I think we need to remind ourselves of the spiritual aspect of doubt, and then try to think, one by one, about our actual questions, as best we can.
8. Doubt saps our strength for service. The problem with doubt is that it takes the wind out of our sails. This is why the Devil is so keen on it. When I doubt, it is much harder to proclaim. How can we sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land? The doubter, as James puts it, can be “unstable in all his ways” (1:8). Doubt cuts our hamstrings when we need to be running.
9. Yet doubt can be used for good. God is sovereign, and he can bring good out of any evil, and certainly out of times of trial and testing. Out of doubt can come a new clarity, a fresh energy, a clearer focus. Out of doubt can come new capacities to help. Doubt is a spiritual experience, and it can bring spiritual growth. The author of Psalm 73 looks back on his experience and sees it with a new clarity (vv.21–22), and finds a deeper understanding of God’s grace and care for him: “You hold my right hand… Whom have I in heaven but you? Earth has nothing I desire besides you?” (verses 23–26). This is a depth of faith and conviction he could not have had otherwise. The same can be true for us as well.
10. Finally, Doubt will not have the last word. In the midst of doubt everything feels up for grabs. It can feel like we don’t know how we’re going to manage, and we can’t see how we could ever find a way out. Yet, Christians do not have to experience doubt only in this way. For there is a word of confidence for us because of Jesus, our faithful High Priest, who has made atonement for our sins and even now intercedes for us, bringing us to himself. He was tempted in every way, yet without sin; and so he can provide the grace to help us in our time of need. “Simon, Simon,” he said to Peter, “Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:31–32). This assurance is for all those who entrust themselves to Jesus’ care. For He has already met and defeated the evil one for us. He has faced the temptations we face, the doubts that threaten us; and he has won. He has believed for us, and died in our place to forgive us our faithlessness. And he prays for us even now. Therefore, we can face doubts with confidence. It will not be the last word for us.
Image: Tom Roberts, Storm at Sea