I Believe in Doubt

by

A man may be haunted with doubts and only grow thereby in faith. Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood.”

—George Macdonald

Faith is much more than the absence of doubt, but to understand doubt is to have a key to a strong faith, a sound mind, and a quiet heart. Yet more confusions surround doubt than many Christian believers realize.

Drawing from C.S. Lewis, there are two equal and opposite errors into which Christians are inclined to fall when thinking about doubt. On the one hand, those who are theologically liberal tend to be too soft on doubt, lionizing such notions as ambiguity and uncertainty, and verging on a spiritual permissiveness that becomes a slipway to unbelief. On the other hand, those who are theologically conservative tend to be too hard on doubt, demonizing the dire consequences of unresolved doubt, and verging on a spiritual perfectionism that leaves doubters in such a state of guilt or despair that they dare not acknowledge their doubts to others or even to themselves.

In the Scriptures, by contrast, we find a realistic yet healthy view of doubt, which regards it as definitely serious but not terminal. Understood properly, this biblical view sees the role of doubt as constructive to belief. “I believe in doubt” is therefore far more than a roundabout way of saying that there is no believing without doubting, and therefore that “even in doubting, I believe.” A bold Christian affirmation is that because faith in Christ is true and fears no question or challenge, doubt can be a stepping stone to a tougher, deeper faith. In this sense, as George Macdonald asserted, doubts are “messengers of the Living One to the honest.” Here are three tips for followers of Christ who wish to have a view of doubt that strengthens faith.

REMEMBER ITS CHARACTER

First, remember the character of doubt. Contrary to widespread misunderstanding, doubt is not the same as unbelief, so it is not the opposite of faith. Rather it is a state of mind in suspension between faith and unbelief. To believe is to be in one mind about accepting something as true; to disbelieve is to be in one mind about rejecting it; and to doubt is to waver somewhere in between the two, and thus to be in two minds. This important distinction uncovers a major misconception of doubt—the idea that a believer betrays faith and surrenders to unbelief by doubting.

This twoness or doubleness represents the deepest dilemma of doubt. The heart of doubt is a divided heart. Here is the essence of the biblical view of doubt, which is echoed in human language and experience from all around the world. All of the New Testament words for doubt—for example, dipsukos, diakrino, distazo, dialogizoma, and meteorizomai—have this sense of doubleness. So also do many other languages—the Chinese speak of a person with “a foot in two boats” and the Navajo Indians of “that which is two with a person.”

An all-important difference exists, therefore, between the as yet open-minded uncertainty of doubt and the closed-minded certainty of unbelief. Because faith is crucial, doubt is serious. But because doubt is not unbelief, it is not terminal. It is only a halfway stage that can lead on to a deepened faith as easily as break down to unbelief.

RESIST ITS CONFUSIONS

The doubleness or indecisive tornness of doubt can be described from the outside with high-noon clarity. But from the inside it is foggy, grey, and disorienting. The world of doubting feels like a world with no landmarks and no bearings. Thus a second tip for those who want to develop a view of doubt that strengthens faith is learn to anticipate and resist the confusions of doubt.

Followers of Christ are not simply fair-weather believers. They are realistic believers committed to truth, people who “think in believing and believe in thinking,” as Augustine expressed it. They are therefore like experienced pilots who can fly in bad weather as easily as in good, by night as well as by day, and upside down as well as right side up. Faith’s rainy days will come and go and dark nights of the soul may threaten to overwhelm, but safe flying is possible for those who have at least two things: a solid grasp of the instruments (God’s truth and promises) and a canny realism about the storm and stress of doubt.

Many of the common confusions about doubt can be cleared away with help. For example, there is the confusion of doubt with unbelief, which reinforces doubt with guilt; the confusion of divorcing faith from knowledge, thus assigning knowledge to the realm of certainty and faith to that of uncertainty; or the confusion of thinking that because God is the answer to all doubt, answers that are theologically correct “God-talk” are a sufficient answer. In all such cases, the confusions are an aggravation of the doubt rather than its real source.

RESOLVE ITS CHALLENGES

The first two tips for handling doubt (remembering its character and resisting its confusion) are vital but obviously preliminary. Without the first, any outbreak of doubt can call faith into question before doubt ever specifically doubts anything. Without the second, the symptoms of doubt can sidetrack a serious investigation that gets to the root of the real causes. But when all the preliminary work is done, the real job remains— tackling the root of doubt. The third tip for those who want to strengthen faith through doubt is to resolve the specific challenges of doubt.

Any attempt to draw up an exhaustive catalogue of doubts would be overwhelming and depressing. But anyone who listens to doubters and studies doubt in the light of the Scriptures soon finds that there are “family resemblances” among doubts. It is therefore possible—and helpful—to discern a broad overview of the main types (or “families”) of doubt. Of course, these broad types are only generalizations. Doubting is specific and doubts strike everyone differently. But when used with sensitivity and compassion, the categories are anything but a strait-jacket. They help people to see where they are, how they got there, and— most importantly—how they can get out.

It has been my privilege to talk to hundreds of individuals who had different kinds of doubt, each experiencing different levels of pain and confusion. No one who understands the pain and perils of doubt can be blithe about it. Loss of trust in God is truly life’s ultimate loss. But such is the nature of faith in God through Christ, as I would affirm along with countless Christians throughout history, that there can be a constructive side of doubt.

Thus, since there is no believing without some doubting, but since believing is all the stronger for understanding and resolving doubt, we can say as Christians that if we doubt in believing, it is also true that we believe in doubting.

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