Doubt is our friend.

by K.W. Leslie, 24 May

You might’ve heard the following verse before.

Matthew 21.21 NIV
Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.”

Jesus says ἐὰν ἔχητε πίστιν καὶ μὴ διακριθῆτε/e’án éhite pístin ke mi diakrithíte, “when you have faith and don’t hesitate,” though most translations follow the KJV’s lead and go with “doubt not.” Either way, people assume he’s contrasting opposites: Hesitation, or doubt, is the opposite of faith.

So either we have faith or we have doubt—so have faith, and never doubt. Doubt is bad. Doubt is evil. Doubt is how the devil convinces us to never do as the Spirit wants.

But in college I studied logic. (Hey, it’s a math class, and I wasn’t a fan of math, but logic sounded like something I could get into. Boy did I.) In logic I learned a lot of supposed “opposites” aren’t really. What’s the opposite of big? It’s actually not small. Big and small are contrasts, not opposites. A big coffee is not the opposite of a small coffee. Big faith isn’t the opposite of small faith either.

Same with hot and cold, black and white, young and old, male and female. Especially male and female. They’re not opposites; they’re complements!

The proper opposite of anything is its absence. The opposite of big is not big. Which could be medium, small, tiny, or even 3XL; what makes it opposite is it’s not what we want. Not what we’re looking for. And that’s not just something relatively smaller; it’s everything else. When it’s not as big as we want, it’s the opposite of big. “That’s not a ‘big.’ Get me a ‘big’!”

Likewise the opposite of black is not-black. The opposite of young is not-young. The opposite of love is not-love. And the opposite of faith is not-faith.

Now, if the definition of a word is precisely the same as that opposite, it’s a true opposite. The opposite of true is not-true, i.e. false. The opposite of patient is not-patient, i.e. impatient. Does doubt mean precisely the same as not-faith? Actually no: It means not enough faith. There’s still a little faith in there! There oughta be more, and sometimes there’s not enough faith for no good reason, ’cause we really oughta trust God more than we do.

But sometimes we don’t have enough faith for a totally valid, very good reason: This isn’t a God thing.

’Cause sometimes it’s not. There are a lot of things which Christians claim are God things, claim are holy, claim are Christ Jesus’s expectations for his followers, claim are mandatory doctrines or mandatory practices. Are they? Well… we doubt. And it turns out we’re right to.

I’ll go so far as to say the reason we doubt is because the Holy Spirit is making is hesitant. The Christianese term for this is, “I have a check in my spirit,” which usually means “I don’t think we should”—and because we can sometimes be giant hypocrites, we phrase it so it sounds like the Holy Spirit is making us hesitant. But sometimes it’s actually not hypocrisy! Sometimes it really is the Holy Spirit telling us, “Whoa there little buckaroo. That’s a cliff you’re heading towards.”

Sometimes we call this supernatural discernment: We know something’s not right, don’t know why, but trust God enough to put things on pause. Other times it takes no revelation from God whatsoever; any onlooker can see it’s all kinds of wrong. And we should practice the regular kind of discernment as well—though you’d be surprised and annoyed how often Christians don’t, and get suckered into all sorts of cons. We can be some of the most gullible people sometimes.

Other times the Holy Spirit will obviously tell us, “No; don’t.” Ac 16.6-7 Won’t necessarily tell us why. Nor does he need to! (We gotta trust him, y’know.) But clearly those “doubts” we might sometimes have, aren’t always gonna the product of doubting God. Sometimes they’re just the opposite. We doubt circumstances. We doubt fellow Christians. We doubt everything but God.

It’s a great thing to have the sort of mountain-moving faith Jesus speaks of. It’s just as great to pay attention to our doubts, lest we attempt to move the wrong mountains. ’Cause doubt isn’t always our opponent! Often doubt is our friend.

And few Christians have been taught this. Or even understand this. They’ve been taught Christians should never, ever, EVER doubt. Shove all those doubts out of your mind. Turn ’em off like a lightswitch. Suppress them. Fight them. Psyche yourself into believing.

In other words, embrace denial. And because denial’s a lie, it doesn’t legitimately get rid of our doubts. Instead, denial unravels our faith and turns us into hypocrites.

Y’see, whenever we Christians have doubts, our next step is to investigate. Confirm whether those doubts are valid. Find out whether there’s anything rock solid behind them, or whether we’re getting scammed by some Christian who only wants our money or loyalty. If these things are of God, they can absolutely hold up to scrutiny. If they’re not, they don’t—and the people trying to pull us in those directions get really angry, and all sorts of other fleshly behavior starts coming out of ’em.

Use those doubts to get solid about what you oughta believe and who you oughta follow—and get closer to God.

Everybody doubts!

Because they’re taught not to, a lot of Christians hypocritically pretend we never, ever doubt. Or we used to, but we’ve overcome that tendency. We have no doubts at all anymore. All our doubts are gone!

But Christianity’s dirty little secret is of course we do. All of us doubt God. All of us. No exceptions. Anybody who claims to be an exception is either lying, or seriously delusional.

I mean, isn’t it obvious? If Christians truly didn’t doubt God, you know what we’d see? God’s kingdom.

We’d see far more miracles, more compassion, more healing, more of the earth-moving stuff Jesus described. Far less hypocrisy. Far fewer ridiculous, godless explanations for unbelief and disobedience, like cessationism and dispensationalism. Far more fruit of the Spirit, and fewer Christians trying to pretend they do so have fruit, but attempting to pass off all sorts of bad behavior as “fruit.”

Yep, Christians doubt. Everybody doubts. It’s the human’s default setting. If it weren’t, we’d be taken in by every salesperson, every politician, every liar, every pundit, every Facebook post, every confidence trickster we meet. The world is full of people worth doubting.

But Christians rarely confess to doubting. The few who do, have to put up with the shocked condemnation of people who think it’s not an option—and pretend they never doubt. “You doubt? How could you? A real Christian would never. I don’t doubt. The next time you doubt, just pray really hard, and God will keep you from doubting.” (If this speech sounds familiar, the “pray really hard” treatment is most Christians’ go-to solution whenever we have no actual solution.)

Doubt is a taboo only pagans and new believers are permitted to discuss. Pagans are expected to have doubts, and even encouraged to have them: “Oh, you’re looking for evidence, facts, and answers? Good! We got ’em.” Their hunger for certainty is used to lead them to Jesus… yet we never think about how it’s also used to help ’em develop good theology. We treat the doubting newbies like they need a little more time to realize they’re in the truth, and after a respectable period they should never doubt again.

Right? Wrong. Everybody doubts. Everybody. No exceptions.

But Christians hide our doubts. We don’t tell one another we have ’em. We might tell our pastors, under duress, like when our doubts are driving us nuts. Pastors regularly hear questions from doubting Christians: “Um… pastor, my ‘friend’ was wondering how we can really know Jesus is God. What’s the best way to explain it to my ‘friend’?” No we’re not fooling them; they’re not stupid. They were young once themselves, and no doubt they asked their youth pastors plenty of questions about the scandalous things their ‘friends’ doubted. Heck, some of ’em were even honest about those doubts.

And if one person summons up the nerve, and goes to the pastor with doubts and questions, the pastor’s gonna realize there are likely loads more Christians with these very same doubts and fears. It’s why they keep preaching sermons on basic stuff!

Thing is, pastors also have doubts. Sometimes even more doubts. See, it’s their job (same as ours) to help God grow his kingdom. Our most powerful tool is faith. And of course the people who don’t want God’s kingdom, assault that faith first. So it’s inevitable that pastors, chaplains, deacons, prophets, bishops, Sunday school teachers, every sort of Christian minister, doubt. If they’re wise they deal with those doubts… and if they’re not, they suppress them. Or worse, quit Christianity in despair; I’ve known a few who did that. It’s a shame. They embraced unbelief rather than doubtful belief.

Fearing our doubts.

Why do Christian teachers tell us we should never doubt?—that we should stifle all the doubts we have, and never explore those dark corridors?

Again, it’s their own doubts. They don’t really trust the Holy Spirit to lead us to the truth as Jesus said he would. Jn 16.13 They worry we’ll discover something which’ll unravel Christianity like a cheap sweater. (And in the case of false teachers, they worry we’ll find out they’ve been misquoting bible like crazy.)

Because they’ve heard horror stories. You’ve probably heard ’em too: Some kid grows up Christian, then goes off to some godless university and gets their Christianity debunked by activist nontheist professors. They find out other ancient religions had creation stories like ours, or Moses didn’t write Genesis singlehandedly, or some of the bible’s genealogies don’t line up, or there are other gospels and books we didn’t include in the bible. Young people have never heard any of these things before, because Christians who hid their doubts were afraid to let ’em know they exist. But discovering this stuff freaks out some kids so hard, they quit Christianity and never come back. Next thing you know, they’re gay vegan Wiccans who live in a bus and sell gluten-free soap for a living.

Of course none of these things should make anybody quit Christianity. Heck, I learned ’em in seminary! But the difference between me, and some stunned kid who quits Christianity in college, is really simple: Deep down they kinda wanted to quit Christianity, and any excuse would do. Whereas I have no intention of quitting. (I’ve seen too much, so I never considered quitting as an option anyhow.) When any Christian is on the fence, doubts don’t push ’em off the fence. Desires make ’em leap to one side or the other. Doubts are the excuse. Or not.

I’ve met plenty of people who lost their faith in college. (Thank God, some of ’em picked it back up.) They claim they “seriously investigated Christianity” back then, but in reality they never did any such thing. They claim they were “raised Christian,” but that’s hardly true either: Their parents and pastors never helped ’em deal with doubt! Instead of a proper introduction to Jesus, they just saw hypocrisy. So much hypocrisy. They just assumed it’s all hypocrisy—but in college they found a safe space, felt it was safe to quit Jesus, and did just that. They found skeptics who claimed to have better answers than we Christians, and joined the skeptics.

More often I’ve encountered this horror story: The potential new Christian who has a thousand questions about God—including a thousand doubts. They visit a church, meet some elders, and ask questions, understandably expecting Christian elders to have answers. Problem is, some of our “elders” aren’t actually mature Christians: They’re just old people. Might’ve gone to church for decades, but know neither diddly nor squat, much less how to put ’em together. So they either pretend to have answers… or pull the common stunt of saying, “Stop asking so many questions. Just believe. Just accept these things on faith.” As if a newbie’s faith is any deeper than a quarter inch. Of course they grow frustrated and leave. They’re seeking answers and faith, not suspension of disbelief!

It surely doesn’t help when certain Christians proclaim, “If just one belief in our faith turns out wrong, the whole of Christianity falls apart.” For those people, their whole theological system is one big Jenga tower, and don’t you dare pull out any of the blocks. So they never investigate their beliefs or doubts, lest the tower falls and their faith “suffers shipwreck.” 1Ti 1.19 I knew an ex-Dispensationalist who became an atheist: After he discovered his theology was based on nothing but out-of-context bible, he felt atheism was the only valid option. He eventually came back to Jesus… but I’ve known other ex-Christians who didn’t.

The wrong way to deal with doubt.

When I was young and had doubts, I went to my youth pastors, nearly all of whom were pretty useless. They gave me the “pray really hard” spiel: “Ask God for faith, and he’ll give it to you.”

Meh. You realize the Mormons do the very same thing? Pray really hard, and they claim God’ll grant you a “burning in your bosom”—a warm sensation in your chest which proves he’s real, or that you’re on the right path. Thing is, it’s really easy to psyche ourselves into the emotions and sensations of “God’s presence.” So all you really proved is you can create a psychosomatic event. Which you credit God for… until the day you’re no longer willing to lie to yourself anymore.

My pastors also pointed me to Christian apologetics. They recommended Josh McDowell’s books, which’d prove Christianity is logical and historical and rational. But who ever said my doubts were rational?

By and large, that’s the usual bad advice we Christians are given when we doubt. Either psych yourself out of doubting, or read some books by cleverer Christians. Oh, and pray a lot, and memorize verses; these are good distractions. Stop thinking so hard. Push the doubts out of your mind.

But this isn’t how we grow faith. This is self-hypnosis, or self-programming. It has nothing to do with faith. It’s a form of fake faith—and some Christians are pursuing fake faith with all their hearts, programming themselves to believe everything they think they oughta, and teach others to do likewise. As a result they stop thinking altogether. You can’t teach them anything; they only know what they’ve conditioned themselves to embrace. You can’t stretch their knowledge, for that’ll reintroduce doubt. Instead of their souls growing into a great saintly life, they contract into a small, narrow one. And someday it’ll crack, to be replaced with real faith, or real atheism.

Okay, enough worst-case scenarios. Time for hope.

Take up God’s challenge. And challenge him.

Doubt means our beliefs about God are on unsteady ground. We didn’t base them on anything solid. We built ’em on sand, so to speak, and need to put ’em on rock. Mt 7.24 We need to start following Jesus.

“But I am following him.” Yeah, but how far? Are we passively obeying his commands, or actively taking steps of faith? By “actively taking steps,” I mean we gotta obey those commands of Jesus which look impossible. Do we do that?—or do we hesitate because we don’t think the miraculous will kick in at the right time? Do we rightly figure, “I don’t know about this, but I’m gonna try it and see what happens”? You know how you learn whether you can walk on water? By getting out of the boat!

When I have doubts, it’s because I need experiential knowledge. I need to do the stuff. Not just know the stuff secondhand, from biblical and theological study. That only goes so far. We gotta follow Jesus, not just know about him. We gotta do as he did, 1Pe 2.21 not just know what he taught.

So you have doubts. Fine. Nothing wrong with that. Doubt isn’t the problem. Unbelief is. Doubt just means we’re not sure. Hopefully we wanna become sure. If that’s true of you, good for you: It means you wanna settle this God stuff once and for all. If you don’t, what else can you have but doubt and unbelief?

That’s what I needed to do. I needed to stop dabbling in Christianity and do it. I needed to stop believing a bunch of things I’d never acted upon, and finally act upon them. I needed to stop taking God for granted, stop being a Sunday-morning Christian, take up my cross daily, Lk 9.23 and grow the Spirit’s fruit. And I needed to challenge God: “Okay, since you exist, show me something.”

Hypocrites tell you to never, ever do this. Never challenge God. Never put him to the test. Why, that’s evil. God might smite you. (Which, I should point out, answers the “show me something” prayer too.)

They say this because deep down they’re terrified God never will show up… because he’s not there, and their Christianity is a fraud, and they’ve been wasting their lives, and now what’ll they do? And they never wanna face that fear. So they don’t. It’s faith without guts. Which isn’t dead; more like the living dead. Zombie Christianity.

Nor is it biblical. God is totally okay with the challenge to show himself! Elijah challenged the Israelites to call for their Baal while he called upon the LORD, and obviously God showed up where their Baal didn’t. 1Ki 18.20-39 Hey, anybody remember Thomas?

John 20.24-29 NIV
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Sure, Thomas was freaked out a little, but was it worth it? Thomas would sure say it was.

So take the risk. Ask God to show up. Don’t limit the way he’s got to show up; leave it up to him. If he doesn’t make himself in some way obvious to you, it means one of three things:

  1. He’s not there.
  2. He’s there, but doesn’t want you.
  3. He’s pretty sure if he does show up, it won’t change anything in you. You won’t really follow him. Oh you say you will, or think you will, but nope.

But whatever God does, it’ll definitely sort things out for you: He’ll show, and your doubts are gone forever. Or he doesn’t, and you can go in peace. Problem solved.

You willing to risk it? If so, you’re exactly the sort of person God wants, and I’m certain he’ll show up. If not, if you’d rather stay suspended in doubt… well there are already a billion apathetic Christians just like you. What’s one more?

I risked it. People ask me from time to time, “Do you ever doubt God exists?” Nope; not anymore. Used to. Now I can’t imagine otherwise—just as you can’t imagine the people you’ve met don’t really exist. Yep, I still have other doubts. I’m working on them, and I expect God will help me through them. He has so far.

This is what God wants to do with our doubts: Erase them. And in faith, we trust God to do it. So when you doubt, start with the correct assumption: “I’m wrong. Jesus is right.” Then investigate. Find answers to your doubts. Ask God for help.

Like I said, the Holy Spirit is often provoking our doubts: He wants us to grow, and he knows we’re not gonna do so when we think we know it all! He’s entirely willing to lead us to the evidence we seek. He’s entirely willing to help us away from unbelief. We have to trust him—not fear the truth, and pretend our doubts don’t exist. All truth belongs to God, and God is no one to fear.