Posted by: Philip Rushton | April 15, 2013

Dealing With Doubt

I was blessed by John’s sermon yesterday on the story of doubting Thomas. What a gift it was to hear from the pulpit that doubt is part of the journey of faith. John mentioned that in John 20:27, Jesus does not actually tell Thomas not to doubt, as some English translations suggest; rather, Jesus says to avoid not believing. This is an important distinction. Jesus is not condemning our doubts and telling us to stuff our questions and concerns. Instead Jesus says that in the midst of our doubt we should keep pursuing truth. When we have questions we should not give up but rather move forward in faith. This reminds me of the character of the father in Mark 9:24 who says to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!”.

As a follow up to John’s sermon I thought I would re-post a reflection on how we might deal with the doubts in our life. Doubt is inevitable, but there are both healthy and unhealthy ways for us to deal with it.

The gospel narratives provide a more nuanced view on faith and doubt then we often find in contemporary Christianity. The story of the father in Mark 9:24 captures a powerful tension that we often experience in our spiritual journey. The father believes and yet he continues to wrestle with uncertainty. What is powerful about this particular narrative is that Jesus responds positively to the father’s honest confession. Though the father continues to struggle with questions, Jesus accepts his faith and proceeds to bless him and heal his son.

The road of honest searching and seeking after God is challenging but very much necessary if we hope to grow in our faith. Timothy Keller writes, “a faith without some doubts is like a human body without antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why the believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy of the probing questions of a smart skeptic.” Just as the body has antibodies to defend itself against antigens, so a life of honesty helps us defend our beliefs against the hard questions that inevitably come our way.

Oddly enough, I think that addressing our doubts is a profound act of faith. As we step into unknown territory we must trust that God will be able to lead us into truth. We must trust that God is bigger than the questions we have. Conversely, by refusing to examine our questions we may in fact be demonstrating a doubt that God can live up to these questions.

However, not all doubt is good doubt. My title is borrowed from John Ortberg’s book Know Doubt. In one of the chapters, Ortberg explains how doubt can go bad. He talks about three approaches to doubt that do not help our faith. First, he talks about the skeptic. The skeptic is someone who never takes a stand for anything. The skeptic sits on the sidelines and asks questions but never takes the risk of trusting. Next there is describes the cynic. The cynics, according to Ortberg,”are not much looking for answers as they are offering conclusions.” The cynic is simply a ‘wounded idealist’ who sees the world in a negative light. They are not seeking answers they are looking for things to criticize. Lastly, there is the rebel. The rebel does not just ask hypothetical questions or suspect the worse – the rebel is someone who is looking for reasons not to believe. As Ortberg summarizes “skeptics question, cyncics suspect, and rebels defy.”

The father in Mark 9 offers us a model of faith and doubt that is more helpful. He is not a skeptic sitting on the sidelines and asking hypothetical questions. He is willing to step out in faith even though he still has questions. He starts by declaring his belief in Jesus. This is an important biblical model. Jesus tells us to step out in faith even when we don’t have it all figured out. When Jesus asks his disciples to follow him in John 2, the disciples start by asking him all sorts of questions. Jesus responds by saying “come and see.” To know God we cannot just examine him from a neutral place. At some point we need to step out and follow him so that we can discover him relationally. That is why theology is commonly defined as “faith, seeking understanding.” As we step out in faith we place ourselves in a position where we can discover answers to our questions. The father also avoids cynicism. He remains hopeful that Jesus has the ability to heal even though he does not know how it works. Lastly, the father avoids rebellion. He is not looking for reasons not to believe, he wants Jesus to help him in his unbelief.

How might a dose of honesty over the uncertainties you have help you grow in your faith journey? Ortberg concludes by saying, “questions can expand our understanding, uncertainty can lead to trust, and honest faith can produce outrageous hope.”

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Responses

  1. Yeah Phil.! I have often prayed -Jesus help my unbelief. I think for me and listening to others express struggle at times, it is that a person wants to believe and dares to hope that this miraculous “thing” will occur. It can seem such a huge or overwhelming hope, you or I aren’t asking for some small ordinary occurrence, we are asking for something to happen that we ourselves cannot see the problem-solving pathway out of…Example: my father dying of lung cancer that the doctor described as “a spiderweb of tumor” useless to try surgery they would never be able to get all of it, and radiation and chemo therapies would only shrink it for a while. what a devastating diagnosis. So I had great Faith that the Holy Spirit was comforting me, trying to guide me in comforting my father, grandfather, sister, his friends, etc. Yet I realized as “the scientist” that a poorly diffuse tumor was a death sentence, and dare I have hope that God/Jesus would reach out and heal him? The Divine creator is of course capable of that, would He choose to? I accepted Dad’s death as inevitable yet still started to pray for this miracle cure. Yet I rapidly realized maybe my role was to pray that Dad knew Jesus for sure as his personal Savior before he died the earthly death, and that others saw this trust and belief before he died. I have confidence in that occurrence. We need to know that we are citizens of heaven, walking this humble earth now as very vulnerable beings. We all struggle with small and large leaps of Faith. I had a youth share with me that he could believe in the miracle of creation and Adam and Eve, yet he struggled with the thought that after Jesus died & presented himself to witnesses, he couldn’t grasp this visualization that “Jesus then ascended into heaven.” I have talked to more than one Christian who believe in creation story yet cannot fathom Mary having an immaculate conception. It sort of confounds my brain that someone can leap to the universe being created, a whole human body-Adam being created, but yet not trust that Jesus came into being through Mary and not “exacting sperm.” Well who created the DNA and method of getting pregnant? (usually what I ask them!) Creator God.
    I have always been on “doubting” Thomas side, he gets a bad rap. Ever thought that maybe he was just late to the gathering because he is the one who was chronically hitting the snooze alarm? Maybe he is up late sharing good news with others, he is the night owl. Or maybe Thomas is the one when traveling with the crowd of disciples that sees the struggling people, the ones with the “looks” in their eyes and he hangs back to have a discussion –then ends up separated and late or missing from these disciple group gathering events! yeah Jesus for just saying come on over Thomas and touch! Thanks Pastor John and Pastor Phil.

  2. Hey Shannon, thanks for your thoughts. It is helpful to hear how this complex relationship between faith and doubt has played itself out in your life. Blessings as you continue on the journey of faith!


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