Doubt and Belief: Finding the Road Again
by Smuts van Rooyen
Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds,
At least he beat his music out.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
He fought his doubts and gather’d strength.
He would not make his judgment blind.
He faced the specters of the mind
And laid them; thus he came at length
To find a stronger faith his own,
And power was with him in the night,
Which makes the darkness and the light,
And dwells not in the light alone.
— from “In Memoriam” by Alfred Tennyson
There are people in life who have been cursed with such a peculiar scrupulousness, such a honed honesty, that they seem doomed to spend their lives engaged in a titanic struggle with doubt. For them an answer is never enough; only the answer will do. They are, to coin a word, utterly “ungullible.”
Honesty, Even About Doubts
Such a man came to Jesus one day. He was desperate. His boy was dying. Somewhere he had heard that Jesus could heal the child, but he did not really believe that Jesus was able to. Yet more than anything else in the world he wanted the boy well again. And so, fighting his mind, he went to Christ.
Can you imagine the journey there? His friends walk with him and fill his ears with strong admonitions. “Say nothing of your unbelief. This is your only chance. It’s for the lad. Don’t reveal too much about your own convictions and remember that a little pretending can go a long way.”
Then he is face-to-face with Jesus, who confirms his worst fear by saying, “Everything is possible for him who believes.”
Oh no. What now? Can he repress this cursed doubt and save his child? Can he just this once affirm what his mind denies? But he will not. He exercises his terrible honesty and cries out, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
Miracles for Doubters
The response of Jesus to such intellectual anguish is profoundly moving. All discussion stops. Jesus is satisfied. The child is promptly healed. And what does this demonstrate? It proves that doublemindedness does not shut us out of God’s concern. It shows that God does not demand that we give up our intellectual honesty as the price for His love.
Nevertheless, we would miss half the story if we did not see that two people were healed that day: the boy and the father. Unbelief – doubt – is an extremely painful condition. Mix insecurity, guilt, and confusion together and you have the essence of doubt. Jesus did not leave him there.
What then can we do to help us in our struggle for faith? How can we believe again? How can we control our doubting?
A good place to begin is at the point of God’s grace. Don’t write yourself off simply because you are doubting. God has not. Jesus was consistently patient with people like you. He accepted your kind. Thomas, John the Baptist, Phillip, and Nicodemus, who were all Knights of Doubting Castle, received sensitive treatment at His hands. These all discovered the astounding truth that where doubt abounds, grace does much more abound. Honest questions have never disqualified anyone from God’s favor.
After accepting your acceptance in spite of your unbelief, you might want to evaluate the nature of your doubt. Doubt comes in two varieties. There is the constructive sort and the destructive sort. Or to put it another way, there is an honest and a dishonest brand. The good, honest stuff is characterized by an unwavering commitment to evidence.
This doubt simply refuses to sweep any facts under the rug. All the facts simply must be faced. Such doubt has been the frustrating possession of virtually every great man who has influenced the course of history. Galileo doubted that the earth was flat. John Wooman disbelieved an Old Testament argument favoring slavery. The Wright brothers rejected the flightlessness of man. Martin Luther agonized over the corruption and teaching of his church. Thank God a thousand times that they doubted.
For many of us as well, the process of doubt is God’s way of saving us from the error of our traditions. We sometimes strive for the status quo with the intensity of horses struggling to reenter their burning barn. Then only one thing helps. God must take the bridle of doubt with its iron bit and inflict such pain that our urge for a fatal stability is overcome. By such constructive doubt, we are redirected to life.
Destructive doubt is a totally different matter. Such doubt is characterized by its dishonesty. For example, moral difficulty often masquerades as doubt. Donald Harbuck, to whom I am indebted for this insight, says:
A person, having failed to square his life with the moral demand, finds himself rejecting the creed of Christianity, not because it is unsound, but as a means of justifying his own dereliction. The mechanisms of personality sublimate this process to the point that an individual may be unconscious of what gave birth to his doubts . . . When doubt only serves to camouflage the shabbiness of conduct, it needs to be recognized as such (The Dynamics of Belief, p. 73).
Life’s tragedies may also masquerade as doubt. A seismic injustice rocks your equilibrium or a sudden death wrings your psyche. Suddenly you are in doubt. When this happens, it is imperative that you evaluate your experiences before you begin to abandon your ideas. Doubt your doubts. Has the evidence changed?
Doubt is also destructive when it becomes a mechanism we deliberately use to keep ourselves from arriving at a conclusion. The rich young lawyer knew that he could not keep Jesus away with a stone or with a stick (Luke 18:18-23). But he could do so with a question mark. And so he tempted Jesus with his questions. When he saw Christ reaching for his soul, he would rub theology like soap over himself so that he could slip from the Savior’s grasp. It is possible to keep an answer we fear at bay forever by a plethora of questions.
Study the Evidence
So, as we were saying, investigate the nature of your doubt. True doubt will lead you through the door of conscience to freedom. False doubt will lead you through the door of rebellion to the illusion of freedom.
When you have determined that your doubt is the honest variety springing from the facts, you will have only one option for resolving the matter left to you. You must explore, discuss, search, question, and read on both sides of the issue. When John the Baptist doubted Jesus, Jesus gave him evidence to help him. He reminded John of the contents of a section of Isaiah. If you doubt the existence of God, don’t just sit there and fret. Buy some books. Read, discuss, pray. You will find that some of the world’s greatest minds have been orthodox Christians who faced your issues squarely and with the same agony of soul.
But what if you find strong evidence on both sides of the issue? Then you can do one of two things: a) throw up your hands in confusion or b) make a decision on the weight of evidence. There is no such thing as 100 percent proof. Draw a conclusion on the basis of what is most right. Force yourself to make an informed decision. Totally black or white answers are only for children. The real world is far more complex. Dare to be the adult you are.
But perhaps the most important thing to say in dealing with doubt is, live by what you do believe and not by what you question. Unbelief is not a home; no one can live in it. What you accept, no matter how small, is a hundred times more important than what you reject. A life cannot be built on negations. Caught in an Alaskan winter, a man can stay alive with a fire the size of a cup. Nurture the flame and try to ignore the frozen night. Stay alive. If you cannot accept God as a person but only as a Power, then hold on to the Power. If you reject Christ as divine but affirm a remarkable humanity, then cling to that. Start with the affirmations you can make.
There is no beauty or sanity in a life that hears only the scratch on the record and not the music. Chronic cynicism is a devastating disease. Refuse to simply cry, “Lord, I don’t believe!” For the benefit of your own mind shout the whole truth: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
And when you have done these things and some doubt yet remains, then accept the reality of life. The reality that sin, sickness, death, and doubt will not be totally abolished until Jesus comes. Then determine that as you wait for that day, you will not permit the urge to believe to extinguish the urge to doubt.
Also determine not to allow the urge to doubt to extinguish the urge to believe. Possess your soul in patience, for in the presence of your struggling faith Jesus is your righteousness, your sanctification, your redemption, and your wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:30).
Scripture quotations were taken from the New International Version.
Used by permission of Good News Unlimited. This article appeared in a past issue of the Bible Advocate magazine.