Understanding Doubt

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

Have you ever struggled with doubt? Have you ever questioned the certainty of your salvation? Have you wrestled with God’s apparent silence in times of disappointment or tragedy? Doubt affects the lives of many believers.

Doubt is a feeling of uncertainty. For the Christian, such uncertainty may arise when considering God or one’s relationship to Him. David once pleaded, “How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?” (Ps 13:1). One reason many believers find it difficult responding to doubt, is they regard such uncertainty as unique to them. While it may be easy to think of those whom God uses most effectively as nearly perfect, nothing could be further from the truth.

The personages of Scripture were authentic people, who experienced many of the same struggles that others fear to admit. Jeremiah, for instance, was one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament; yet for all his courage, he was also subject to periods of great depression. Jeremiah was frequently mistreated, and his life was often in peril. More than any Old Testament saint, he knew the meaning of “the fellowship of His [Christ’s] sufferings” (Phil 3:10). For this reason, it should not be shocking to read the prophet’s complaint as follows: “O LORD, You have deceived me and I was deceived; You have overcome me and prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me” (Jer 20:7).

Abraham—the very example of righteousness through faith—grew tired of waiting for God to fulfill His promise of a seed in what is known as the Abrahamic Covenant of Genesis 12. God had promised Abraham that his descendants would “be a blessing” to the entire earth (Gen 12:2-3), and that He would make his descendants as numerous “as the dust of the earth” (13:16). Abraham was approximately 80 years of age when he said, “‘O Lord God, what will You give me, since I am childless?’” (15:2a). If he died, the only heir of his house was Eliezer (v. 2b). Abraham was concerned for the outworking of God’s worldwide plan of salvation. God made a gracious promise, yet seemed to be doing nothing. Abraham and Sarah were getting older and were filled with doubt.

Moses tired of bearing responsibility for the wilderness community, so he vigorously expressed his feelings to God, asking why the Lord was “so hard” on him and why he seemed to lack divine favor (Numb 11:11). God’s promise to supply meat was one response to Moses’ complaint (v. 18). Moses doubted that God would truly be able to supply meat for such a large multitude of people, so that they could “eat for a whole month” (v. 21). Thinking in human terms, Moses asked, “‘Should flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, to be sufficient for them? Or should all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to be sufficient for them?’” (v. 22). God’s response was to remind Moses of His omnipotence (v. 23; cf. Isa 55:8-9).

Dr. Gary Habermas is a distinguished research professor of apologetics and philosophy, whose book Dealing with Doubt (Chicago: Moody Press, 1990) provides three examples of doubt: (1) factual, (2) emotional, and (3) volitional. The most common type of doubt is factual, which arises from a lack of information. Factual doubt is evident in Mary questioning the angel Gabriel regarding the possibility of her conceiving a child as “a virgin” (Luke 1:34). The solution to factual doubt is the revelation of Scripture. The story is often told that when someone asked Augustine what God was doing for infinite time prior to the creation of the world, the church father responded in anger, “God was creating hell for people who ask such questions.” Some regard Augustine’s response as amusing, while others view it as a perfect illustration of how religion discourages questions and instead demands blind faith.

The truth is that Augustine never indicated it was wrong to have questions and earnest pleadings to God for understanding; rather, he severely criticized the person who condemned such. He wanted to consider thought-provoking questions seriously, and refused “to evade the point of the question” by means of a “frivolous retort.” Saint Augustine said: “But it is one thing to make fun of the questioner and another to find the answer. So I shall refrain from giving this reply. For in matters of which I am ignorant I would rather admit the fact than gain credit by giving the wrong answer and making a laughing-stock of a man who asks a serious question” (Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin [New York: Penguin, 1961] XI.12).

As opposed to regarding faith as antithetical to having questions, Augustine regarded faith as an incentive to inquiry. One does not understand to believe; rather, one’s faith is in order to understand, for it is the recompense of such belief.  Having challenging questions and earnest pleadings to inform one’s mind—thereby resulting in greater understanding—is not to be avoided. Augustine’s intense yearning for greater understanding of Scripture, is evident in his comments regarding Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”). He wrote:

Let me hear and understand the meaning of the words: in the Beginning you made heaven and earth. Moses wrote these words. . . . He is no longer here and I cannot see him face to face. But if he were here, I would lay hold of him and in your name I would beg and beseech him to explain those words to me. . . . Since, then, I cannot question Moses, whose words were true because you, the Truth, filled him with yourself, I beseech you, my God, to forgive my sins and grant me the grace to understand those words. . . . (Confessions, XI.3).

Evading challenging, thought-provoking questions by means of a flippant rejoinder, is not appropriate in response to factual doubt. Facts are the answer to such uncertainty. Factual doubt is most often concerned with the evidence for Christianity, such as the existence of God and the problem of pain and suffering; or even historical facts, such as miracles and the authenticity of Scripture. Doubt that is largely factual is generally resolved if sufficient information is given in response to its questions. Factual doubt is primarily settled with facts that convey the appropriate reasons for faith. Therefore, the best remedy is greater understanding of Scripture, because “milk” is nutritious for a time, but “meat” will sustain a person for the long-term (cf. 1 Cor 3:1-4; Heb 5:11-14). If doubt is factual, the Word of God has the answer; and, if someone has not yet trusted in God, it is incumbent upon the believer to “make a defense . . . with gentleness and respect,” following the example of Jesus when He defended Himself (cf. 1 Pet 3:15).

If answers are not attained, factual questions can result in an emotional response, or what may be called emotional doubt. The most frequent and painful type of doubt is emotional; it is also the most difficult to resolve. Emotional doubt usually arises from a painful experience. What may be regarded as the groanings of life for some (cf. Rom 8:18-25), may be debilitating for another, so that little can be done to offer consolation. Doubt arises because a person becomes uncertain regarding God’s love for him or her. Facts are not what is needed for an emotional doubter, because they have difficulty believing what they know to be true, as a result of interpreting the facts in an emotional manner. When a person knows the facts of a situation yet still struggles with doubt, the reason is most likely an emotional cause for such uncertainty.

Those with emotional doubt may express the same questions as factual doubters, though they ask for different reasons. For instance, both may express doubt concerning the resurrection. One asks regarding facts he or she does not possess, while the other asks because he or she entertains the possibility of being wrong. Normally, the greatest indication that doubt is emotional is when a suffering person responds to reasons why he or she should not doubt, with a question that begins, “What if. . .?” The person knows the facts of the resurrection, for example, yet wonders, “What if he or she is wrong?”

How does a person overcome emotional doubt? Changing one’s thinking is the answer. The book of Romans makes an interesting contrast between the unbeliever and believer. According to Romans 1, the unbeliever exchanges “the truth of God for a lie” (v. 25a). Believers, however, are to present their bodies as “a living and holy sacrifice” (12:1), which is being “transformed by the renewing of [our] mind” (v. 2). One believes a lie, while the other changes his or her manner of thinking. A person’s mood is changed by what he or she is thinking. The Word of God is true; consequently, the emotional doubter needs to stop thinking wrongly regarding truth.

The final type of doubt is volitional, which can be a person with immature faith, or the questioning of whether one’s faith in Jesus is authentic since it occurred at a young age. Other examples may include unwillingness to repent of known sin, or to apply biblical truths to one’s life. The most extreme form of volitional doubt is one who determines not to believe. The doubt is not from lack of evidence; rather, it a personal resolve not to believe God despite the proof. The religious leaders at the first coming of Christ, are examples of those who willfully rejected the evidence of both fulfilled Scripture and the miraculous signs.

Doubt is not unbelief. The opposite of faith is unbelief. There is a fundamental difference between the open-minded uncertainty of doubt and the narrow-minded certainty of unbelief. Of course, doubt can lead to unbelief if not resolved. Unbelief, however, is a rejection of God and His Word. Doubt can occur in the life of a believer; sometimes it is factual or emotional. However, when doubt is nurtured volitionally, either through spiritual immaturity or unrealistic expectations (e.g., absolute certainty for everything), it can manifest in unbelief. Doubt does not automatically equate to unbelief. Jude 22 says, “have mercy on some, who are doubting.” Scripture promises the believer who is dependent upon Christ in faith, will not be overwhelmed by anything (1 Cor 10:13), which certainly includes doubt.

Midnight Call - 08/2022

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