Pause for thought - On Doubt and Belief
The Church is not always great at dealing with doubt. We tend to swing between two extremes.
On the one hand, there are some in the Church who are threatened by the slightest whiff of doubt. Those with honest questions or sincere doubts are treated with great suspicion, or worse – their very salvation is called into question. I suspect I am not the only one who has seen people I love walk away from the faith because they were led to believe that the Church is an inhospitable place for serious questions and uncertainties. A religion that polices doubt in this way is a religion that ultimately lacks confidence in its own beliefs. We tend to forbid honest questions when we are insecure about our own answers.
Thankfully, God is not so easily threatened by our doubts.
The Christian scriptures are filled with examples of men and women challenging God, questioning God, demanding answers and proof from God. When God told Abraham and Sarah that they would have a child in their old age, Abraham thought it was a joke. We read that ‘Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old?”’ (Gen. 17:17). God did not smite Abraham then and there. He didn’t say, ‘You know what, forget it, I’ll find someone else.’ God did what God always does: he fulfilled his promise. He blessed Abraham and Sarah with a child, demonstrating his faithfulness to his own word and to his people.
In the book of Judges, God instructs a man by the name of Gideon to lead a small group of Israelites into battle against a larger and much more powerful enemy. But Gideon has some serious reservations. So Gideon tells God, ‘In order to see whether you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said, I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing-floor; if there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said.’ Sure enough, he comes back the next morning and the fleece is wet. But Gideon still has his doubts. So he asks God to do the trick with the fleece again, this time keeping the fleece dry while the ground is wet. And again, for a second time, God provides a sign (Judges 6:36-40).
When the apostle Thomas expresses incredulity at the appearance of Jesus to the other disciples, Jesus doesn’t kick him out of the club for having doubts. Thomas doesn’t lose his apostle membership card. To the contrary, Jesus invites Thomas to have the evidence that he was seeking, to behold his pierced hands, and to touch his wounded side in order that he might believe.
God is secure enough to handle our doubts. The Church should be secure enough to handle our doubts as well.
So that’s one extreme: a church that bars the door to all doubts and questions. At the other extreme, however, are those in the Church who see doubt as an intellectual virtue in and of itself. Faith is for the weak-minded, we are told. Doubt is the true sign of spiritual maturity and enlightenment. According to this extreme, doubt is not simply an inevitable part of the Christian journey; it is the destination. The more we grow as Christians, the more we learn to call everything into question.
If the first extreme is a sign of insecurity, the second extreme is often a sign of spiritual pride. When we are the ones questioning everything, we are the ones ultimately calling the shots. God becomes answerable to us, rather than the other way around.
But, of course, Jesus doesn’t congratulate Thomas for his doubt. He doesn’t just leave him in his doubt and send him on his way. After providing Thomas with the evidence he sought, after inviting him to see and touch, Jesus tells him, ‘Do not doubt but believe’ (John 20:27).
Scripture does not tell us to bury our doubts. We are not meant to put on a fake smile and pretend that this whole Christianity business isn’t messy, and confusing, and sometimes difficult to swallow. We are invited to throw our doubts at God, to wrestle with God in our prayers and in our reading of scripture, to bring our questions and our concerns to him, not from a place of pride or cynicism, but from a place of longing – a longing for truth, a longing for answers, but ultimately a longing for God.
Because faith is not just about believing certain things; it is about believing in someone. It is about entrusting ourselves to the God who made us, the God who loves us, and the God who has drawn near to us in Jesus Christ.
There is a marvelous passage from Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus encounters a boy suffering from terrible seizures. In desperation, the boy’s father turns to Jesus and says, ‘if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ Jesus answers, ‘All things are possible for the one who believes.’ The boy’s father responds, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ (Mark 9:22-24). May that be our prayer as well.
Revd Dr Jordan Hillebert