Doubt – that blacklisted church word! Like it’s an infection that could spread through a congregation and compromise all Bodily functions. If you grew up in churches, you’ve learned instinctively not to share doubts. Pretend you have it all together, pretend it all makes sense, you can ask occasional questions but definitely don’t bring up the “hard” ones – how does evolution fit in, do we have free will, why is there pain in the world, how do we know any of this is true?
Churches cultivate doubt-averse cultures. If you have questions, don’t address them in church. Ask your pastor later so you don’t infect others. Or better, attend that class just for people who struggle with faith. We won’t call it a “recovery group” or anything, but let’s be honest – the subtext is clear. Something is broken if you doubt. I mean, really. “You of little faith,” stay away from my kids – I don’t want them to turn out like you.
With this atmosphere common in churches, you’d expect the same message to appear through Scripture. What if I said it doesn’t? At least, not in the form you think.
Some quick trivia. The word “doubt” appears in the NIV a whole… 13 times. As opposed to hot topics like “love” (686x) and “money” (113x), or contrasts like “learn” (103x) and “search” (88x). What’s the deal? I’d have expected more on doubt!
The general distaste “church people” have for doubt comes from just a few of these passages. One: In Matthew 14:31 Jesus walks on water and Peter does too, but when he starts sinking Jesus says “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Honestly – none of us would have even gotten out of the boat! None of the other disciples did. Jesus isn’t saying, “Doubt is bad, you should have followed me blindly!” He’s saying, “In light of the evidence around you – all my miracles, me walking on water, you walking on water – why did you doubt?”
Two: Luke 24:38 shows the disciples in hiding and the resurrected Jesus appears like a ghost. He says, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?” (As if it wasn’t obvious! I hope one of the disciples rolled his eyes.) Now they’ve seen him, they believe. Again, he’s not saying “Trust blindly” but rather “In light of what you now see, me here among you, why do you doubt? Come investigate, make sure it’s me.”
Jesus criticizes doubt only in light of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Three: The same occurs in John 20:27 with Thomas. Yes, Jesus commands him to “stop doubting and believe” – but not before proving himself but after. He shows himself and encourages Thomas to touch his hands and side before expecting him to dismiss his doubts. He expects us to investigate doubts before laying them to rest – not magically dismissing doubts by blind faith.
I think Luke puts doubt in perspective. In Acts 12:11, Peter sleeps in prison as a guy walks up and, literally, punches him in the side to wake him up. A light shines, the chains fall, the doors unlock, the guards are unseeing, Peter thinks he’s in a dream and then the angel disappears. Peter’s miraculously a block away from the prison out on the streets. “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me.” Did you catch that? NOW I know without a doubt. Doubt is dismissed by truth and evidence; doubt is a normal experience for Believers, even Peter. God provides evidence and only then can we say, “NOW I know without a doubt.”
Orson Scott Card, author of sci-fi classic Ender’s Game, opened my eyes to the virtue of doubt. Ender is challenged to question his understanding of how a school works. As he processes this new view, Card tells us: “He believed. Believed, but the seed of doubt was there, and it stayed, and every now and then sent out a little root. It changed everything, to have that seed growing. It made him listen more carefully to what people meant, instead of what they said. It made him wise.”
As Ender processes a new view, doubt makes him wise by making him search harder and not give up before the evidence is in. What is doubt? Asking questions. How do we learn? Asking questions. When we let doubt motivate us to dig deeper, we learn and grow wise. Only when we surrender to doubt without seeking to learn does it hurt us. Doubt is normal – but more than that, doubt is healthy. Because there are answers out there. And doubt motivates us to find them.
When James 1:6 tells us to “believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea,” he’s discussing prayer and telling us “in light of all you’ve seen, in light of all you’ve experienced, in light of everything you know to be true – trust God when you pray.” This is Jesus’ brother, talking to veteran Christians who knew disciples in person – maybe even Jesus in person. He’s not criticizing doubt – he’s encouraging evidence-based belief in people he knows possess great evidence.
So what would Bible writers say to us today – us who didn’t see the founders, didn’t see their miracles, didn’t receive letters from apostles or visions from above? Or to young or new believers who might doubt due to lack of evidence? Lucky for us, they left us a message as well.
Jude knew doubt was healthy, not a crisis. Jude knew doubt was natural, especially for new believers. Jude knew not everyone got to meet Jesus first hand – many had to trust the testimony of others even in his day. Jude knew doubters needed encouraged to dig deeper to find truth – not be criticized and silenced until they sneak out the back door. And this is what he said: “Be merciful to those who doubt” (Jude 1:22).
“Be merciful to those who doubt.” – Jude
So the next time someone in church talk down about doubt, set them straight. The next time a believer shares a doubt, help them look for answers! And above all, be merciful – do not judge. Because we’ve all been there.
If you missed our recent article on blind faith, check it out here! Is Faith Really Blind?