Benefit of the Doubt

Why questioning your faith isn’t a sign of weakness.

One night when I went into our youngest son’s room to tuck him in, he had a serious question waiting for me. “Dad, how do you know God and Jesus are real? I mean, how do you know for sure?” He had not stumbled over the perplexing assertions of the New Atheists, nor was he vexed about whether Thomas Aquinas’ proofs for the existence of God were logical. My son had simply stepped into the place many of us have found ourselves in—where we must wrestle with the truth.

I know this terrain well, as my own faith has not come easy. I remember when disorienting questions first put a vice grip on my heart: What if this is all a hoax? What if everything I believe is pure fantasy? At first, I felt ashamed that such thoughts bounced around in my mind. But over the years, I’ve come to understand that if God is the ground of all truth, then there is nothing to fear in these unsettling experiences. While some of us believe without any doubts or questions, others of us believe via a faith forged through them.

From a certain angle, we can see how doubt exists as faith’s friend rather than its enemy. If doubt keeps us honest and pushes us to investigate, then questions and mental wrangling encourage us to renounce hollow ideas and instead hold out until we’ve come to firm, steady understanding. As Frederick Buechner says, “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.” Good questions, tenacity for truth, and a rebellion against counterfeits help us gain a hard-fought answer for why we hope in God (1 Peter 3:15).

If we’re not careful, however, doubt can drain our faith of its courage. Doubt feeds on fear, and when we dread these dark places (either because we presume God cannot stand up to the critics or because we consider our faith frail), we wilt. Of course, the fact is that while our faith may be scrawny, God is not. He is the granite on which our faith, faltering though it may be, securely rests.

For me, it’s helpful in these moments of doubt to simply deflate the overblown anxiety. We can chuckle, shrug our shoulders, and say, “Hey, no hurry here. I don’t have to decide the deep realities of the universe in the next 24 hours. It’s okay to give the truth a little time to show itself.” Eventually, much of the fog disperses, and the questions don’t seem quite so suffocating as they once did. And whether or not I’m able to reach a definitive conclusion, I’m left with the simplest, most basic fact: I believe in Jesus. I believe Jesus rose from the dead. God, in Jesus, has won my heart.

Good questions, tenacity for truth, and a rebellion against counterfeits help us gain a hard-fought answer for why we hope in God.

Through all this, a line from James has often bothered me. “When you [pray],” says James, “you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6-7). So if I pray to God with questions or uncertainty, should I expect rebuke? How, then, are we to understand the Psalms’ vexing words: “What’s going on here? Is God out to lunch?. . . The wicked get by with everything” (Ps. 73:11-12 MSG)? And how do we make sense of the father’s wavering prayer for his son: “I do believe; help my unbelief ” (Mark 9:24)?

It’s helpful to understand that James’s concept of doubt is not the same as our modern notion—the word he uses (krino) means “to judge,” “to decide,” or “to believe.” He sees a doubter not as one who wrestles with the truth of things but rather as someone who refuses to ever take the risk of deciding on truth at all. James doesn’t rebuke people who wrestle tirelessly to find truth; rather, he criticizes those who use uncertainty as an excuse to avoid acting with courage. In other words, when doubts keep us honest, they serve us well. But when doubts keep us from saying, “This is what I believe, and this is where I stand,” they are a cop-out.

That’s why a doubter is “tossed by the wind” and “double-minded” (James 1:6, James 1:8). Such a person refuses to give himself to anyone or anything—he never takes responsibility and keeps every option open. I wonder if, in our modern vernacular, cynic would be a better word for what James describes. An honest doubter struggles because he or she wants to discover the truth. But a cynic wants to believe there’s no such thing as truth and shoots it down at every available opportunity.

Faith is not opposed to doubts and honest grappling. Rather, it involves the courage to pursue truth—or better still, to pursue the God who gives all truth. C.S. Lewis gets to the heart of this in Mere Christianity when he says, “Faith . . . is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” Faith is a bold, daring yes to God.

Related Topics:  Doubt

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15 but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence;

6 But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.

7 For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord,

11 They say, How does God know? And is there knowledge with the Most High?"

12 Behold, these are the wicked; And always at ease, they have increased in wealth.

24 Immediately the boy's father cried out and said, I do believe; help my unbelief."

8 being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

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