doubt away

My working title for my doubt book was Doubt Away:  Believe What You Know, It’s More than You Think. I liked the double meaning of “doubt away,” because on the one hand there are benefits to doubt, so go ahead and do it, while on the other hand believers need to put their doubt away so they can commit to what they know. The publisher changed the title to Despite Doubt:  Embracing a Confident Faith, so I made “Doubt Away” the title of chapter one, as a homage to my original idea.

I explain the paradox of doubt in a essay I wrote for the publisher’s newsletter, which starts now:

Everyone doubts at one time or another. We doubt because we are finite. We do not know everything about anything, so we find room to question and wonder. Sometimes the questions scare us. A lot. We doubt because we are fallen. Sin has corrupted our minds so we do not think as clearly as we otherwise would. Worse, we are biased against certain truths. Paul says that sinners in their natural state suppress what they know about God (Romans 1:18-23). Not every doubt is as honest as we think.

Our fallenness leads some Christians to be overly suspicious of doubt, and they assume that every doubt is the enemy of faith. This is wrong. Faith means to commit, and we can do that even when we do not know for sure. The perfect Son of God screamed from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Jesus’ doubt did not destroy His faith, for He came right back with “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

Doubt is often a valuable help to faith. Frederick Buechner wrote, “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” Doubt keeps us on our toes. All discoveries begin with doubt, and the largest doubts lead to the biggest breakthroughs. Job dared to doubt whether God was good, and he learned that he was punching above his weight class. John the Baptist dared to ask whether Jesus was the Messiah, and he learned what gospel ministry was all about. Jesus dared to ask why He was forsaken. The answer to that question holds the foundation of our salvation.

On the other side, our finitude leads many Christians to overstate the importance of doubt. Popular books on faith and doubt say that doubt is necessary for faith. Faith requires risk, so the greater your risk the greater your faith. And what could be a greater risk than believing what you don’t know for sure? And so, we are told, the more we doubt the more we are able to believe.

This is foolish. In every area of life we understand that what we don’t know can hurt us. Would you sit for a surgeon who said he had always wanted to try yours? What if you asked your dentist, “Will this hurt?”, and she said, “Beats me. Let’s find out!” What is true about medicine is also true when it comes to God:  We are asking for trouble when we commit to what we don’t know.

We might also be sinning. Satan told Jesus to take a leap of faith, to test God’s power by jumping off the temple and trusting God to catch Him. Jesus said He had too much faith to jump. This spiritual leap would actually be sin, for He did not have a word from God that told Him to jump, and He did not need to test God’s power and love (Luke 4:9-12). Jesus’ response is the opposite of one bestselling book on faith, which says “As God’s chosen, blessed sons and daughters, we are expected to attempt something large enough that failure is guaranteed…unless God steps in.” Could it be that what often passes for faith today is nothing more than the last temptation of Christ?

We are finite and we are fallen, so doubt will come and go until Jesus comes again. But doubt need not destroy our faith. We can commit to Jesus even when our hearts are heavy with unanswered questions. On the other hand, neither is doubt necessary for faith. Faith does not mean acting against our better judgment, jumping into the void and trusting God to rescue us. Faith means to commit, and wise believers commit to what they know, not what they don’t.

If faith requires knowledge, then the important question is not “What are your doubts?” but “What do you know?” The encouraging surprise of Despite Doubt: Embracing a Confident Faith is that you may know more than you think—more than enough to believe, more than enough to put your doubts away.

2 Comments

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  1. I love this reflection on doubt…after having spent a couple weeks in Lamentations! I have always felt like the father mentioned in the Gospel of Mark, “I believe. Help my unbelief!”

    I do have a few questions:
    1) Do you make a distinction between “doubt” and “uncertainty”?
    2) If faith means to commit, what is the opposite of faith? Or is there an opposite?
    3) Do you talk about belief and unbelief existing simultaneously?

    Edit? “Would you sit for a surgeon who said he had always wanted to try yours?” … Did you mean a surgical procedure that he had never done before?

  2. Doug: I think doubt is uncertainty, and it typically shows up as emotional or intellectual uncertainty. The opposite of faith would be unbelief, not doubt. I don’t think a person can believe and unbelieve at the same time, but they can definitely believe and doubt. I have a chapter on ‘belief’ where I walk through these definitions and include a diagram that shows how I think they’re all related.

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