Dealing with doubts as a Christian
Regular columnist James Knight considers the whole question of doubt, and asks whether or not it is actually good to have doubts.
In the Christian faith, doubt has rather a paradoxical nature about it. On the one hand there is truth in Tennyson’s claim that there lives more faith in honest doubt – that it is our doubts as well as our convictions that produce our strongest systems of thought. Yet who could forget Shakespeare…
Our doubts are traitors
And make us lose the good we oft might win
By fearing to attempt.
Jesus seems to be more on the side of Shakespeare than Tennyson. When Jesus separates the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25) the goats seem to be disparaged more for what they didn’t do than anything else. Doubt can get us into trouble, we are told - particularly if it leads to cowardice, inaction, furtiveness, stagnancy and hopelessness.
Jesus is categorical in His disapproval of doubt – He rebuked Peter for taking his eyes off Him and sinking in the water because Peter became anxious with doubt (Matthew 14:27-31). When talking about prayer, Jesus says that if we have faith and do not doubt anything we will be given the power to do anything (Matthew 21:21). Thomas was told off for doubting when he should have known better (John 20:29), and St James says that when it comes to asking for wisdom he who doubts is like a wave of the sea being tossed and blown by the wind (James 1:6).
Given the foregoing, we also need to square this up with the fact that doubt is also sometimes a powerful tool of cognition in our enquiring about the world. There are, naturally, many times in life when our doubts are not only perfectly reasonable, but necessary. The people who don't doubt enough end up believing all kinds of nonsense, purely on the grounds that others believe those things.
So we see clearly that there is more than one way to doubt, and our general observation seems to be that when our doubt impugns the Lord it is bad, yet when it is used for rationalisation and checking our beliefs against reality it is often a good thing. Doubt is the fluid that certainty bleeds when we cut into it. We are to use it to assemble the arsenal of knowledge and understanding to give ourselves to Christ, but after that it is all based on a daily trust that should be powerful enough to sustain the basis of our relationship.
What the verses referred to above show is that the Bible speaks most frankly to those doubters who really should have known better or whose folly was impairing their vision, because the knowledge and the vision we are called to have is a particularly challenging one, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer expresses wonderfully in his The Cost of Discipleship:
When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. That is why the rich young man was so loath to follow Jesus, for the cost of following was the death of his will. In fact, every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his calls are necessarily our death and our life.
For a life decision so big, and with so much at stake, surely some elements of doubt are a necessary thing - after all, only a frivolous person would think of taking lightly a call to give up their life? True, but here's what I think a good balance looks like between the two kinds of doubt: we should use doubt as a grip to squeeze every bit of truth out of any situation, ensuring we haven't been misled and that our investigations are rigorous; but we should avoid the charges above by using doubt in appearance with humility, rather like one who is so modest that he retains an element of self-doubt because he knows his true state in relation to the glory of God.
St Paul often employed this kind of humility, correctly identifying the maxim ‘By the grace of God I am what I am’ – it is that kind of self-doubt which leads to the very humility from which the eyes of those doing the admiring are almost forced upwards off the subject and onto the Divine. In terms of empiricism, the doubts of Peter and Thomas were understandable - they sought to honestly question, and that is usually okay.
Christ's challenge, it seems, is to get ourselves to a stage on our journey where we are so accustomed to Him being in control that we do not have the same kinds of doubt that Peter and Thomas had. In a peculiar way, it may be the case that to open ourselves up to doubt all the things we are best doubting, we have to know the Lord securely and confidently enough to not doubt all the things we are best not doubting.
James Knight is a local government officer based in Norwich, and is a regular columnist for Christian community websites Network Norfolk and Network Ipswich. He also blogs regularly as ‘The Philosophical Muser’, and contributes articles to UK think tanks The Adam Smith Institute and The Institute of Economic Affairs, as well as the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC).
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