Faith & Doubt
If ours is an examined faith, we should be unafraid to doubt.... There is no believing without some doubting, and believing is all the stronger for understanding and resolving doubt.
- Os Guinness
Christianity places a great deal of emphasis on faith. According to the Bible, it's the thing that secures a person's eternal salvation. Only those who have faith punch their ticket to Heaven. The Apostle Paul put it this way:
"Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us" (Rom. 5:1).
Later in the New Testament, the author of Hebrews would write,
"Without faith, it is impossible to please God" (Hebrews 11:6).
And Peter reminded his readers that,
"the end result of your faith [is] the salvation of your souls" (1 Peter 1:9).
For those who find faith easy, those verses can be comforting. But for those who struggle with doubt, the emphasis on faith can be distressing since it places their hope of eternal life in peril.
Or does it?
I'm persuaded that contrary to popular opinion, doubt is only a threat to a certain kind of faith. Fortunately, for doubters, it's not a threat to the biblical notion of faith. However, many Christians have inherited an unbiblical notion of faith. And it's that notion of faith that is incompatible with doubt, not the biblical notion of faith.
For example, consider a woman I'll refer to as Pam. Pam was convinced that any doubt was incompatible with faith. For years she struggled, fearing that she was going to Hell because she couldn't muster up a sense of psychological certainty about the claims of the Bible.
I was terrified. I doubted gods existence, I didn’t fully believe in him, now I was going to hell. I stayed in this place of horror for 30 years. ….The thing is I thought that god and the Bible were probably true, like 99% sure, but I wasn't totally and completely convinced of his existence and so I was sure I was going to burn in hell.
Ashamed of her doubts she never told anyone.
I was terrified and I told no one….When I was a teen we got a new pastor and his son was about my age. We started dating. I never told him. We married and he went to Bible college to become a pastor too. I still never told him.
She waited in vain for her doubts to go away.
I kept waiting for that moment when I would finally hear something that would take away all my doubt and I would fully believe. I never planned on ever having anyone know about this period of doubting.1
Pam's story is tragic, not just because she deconverted, but because she felt she couldn't talk about her doubts, and because of her misunderstanding about the nature of faith. It is clear that she saw faith and doubt as incompatible. She is not alone in believing that faith and doubt are incompatible. Many former Christians (and current ones) are under the mistaken impression that faith is primarily a psychological state that is synonymous with being certain about what the Bible claims.
Faith = Certainty
As we'll see in the next section in this series, the Greek words the English Bible translates as "believe" and "faith" are from the same Greek root. And even though they are translated into two different English words, they express the same concept. That concept, however, is different from what the English words "believe" and "faith" convey. In English, to believe means little more than "to think a claim is true." Likewise to have "faith" is also cashed out in terms of what goes on in our minds. According to Oxford's English dictionary, faith is:
a) Complete confidence or trust in someone or something.
b) A strong belief in God or the doctrines of a religion.
Do you notice what's emphasized in the above definitions of faith? The answer is that the focus is on what's going on in your head. In both definitions, faith is primarily a mental state of "complete confidence" or "strong belief." In other words, having faith is being psychologically certain, (or at least approaching psychological certainty) about some claim.
In terms of what this means for Christians, a person's faith is as strong as it is certain. Those who lack doubts are seen as having a lot of faith, whereas those who have doubts are seen as having weak, or no faith at all. Doubt, therefore, is the enemy of faith. It results in pushing one's doubts aside to make oneself feel certain. According to this way of thinking being saved by faith means being saved by feeling certain about particular beliefs.
But that is completely false. Biblical faith is compatible with nearly whatever level of doubt a person may have. A biblical model of faith doesn't require certainty and is comfortable with ambiguity, doubt, and questions.
When the Bible speaks of "faith" it doesn't primarily refer to how much psychological certainty a person has but rather a combination of having some measure of confidence the Bible's claims are true and entrusting one's self to Jesus.1
If "belief" is understood primarily as having psychological certainty about the claims of the Bible, doubt will always be seen as the opposite of faith. But doubt is not the opposite of faith, certainty is the opposite of faith. If that is true, then the only way to increase your faith is to ignore and (definitely never share) your doubts. But doubts can only be suppressed for so long before they overwhelm a person.
Doubt is not the same as unbelief. It is wavering between belief and unbelief. Doubt means having a level of both belief and skepticism.
And - this is important to hear - it is the common experience of nearly all Christians. To never doubt is to have a naive, stagnant faith. Everyone who believes in Jesus and lives in the modern world is subject to doubt. Our culture is increasingly secular, pluralistic, and relativistic. The Internet provides access to websites dedicated to demonstrating that Christianity is false, and the behavior of the Church doesn't always inspire confidence that Christianity is true.
I personally do not know any Christians who are completely free from doubt. And if I did, it would tell me more about their psychological makeup, than it does the certainty of the Christian faith.
Biblically speaking, "faith" means:
to live in accordance and solidarity with Jesus because one is inclined to think the Bible's claims about him are true, despite not having certainty.
Note that the emphasis is not on giving one's mental assent to a claim, but rather on a commitment to the person of Jesus.
Doubt and faith are compatible. In fact, doubt is experienced by some of the Bible's leading characters.
- John the Baptist
All of the above had unanswered questions and doubts. Yet they had enough reasons to think the claims of God were true so that they choose to live according to them. Their confidence in those claims ebbed and flowed. Nevertheless, they endured, not because they were certain, but because they had sufficient confidence to do so.
What level of confidence is sufficient, you ask?
Click here to find out