The Discouragement of Doubt

Doubt is not, in itself, sinful. That may be news to some who might be reading this, having experienced some form of chastisement for having asked legitimate questions about why certain things were believed, practiced, or taught. That is unfortunate, because doubt can come from a genuine lack of certainty, and questions might be asked to gain further information upon which one might be persuaded to believe what was previously doubted.

The kind of doubt that begins with uncertainty might — if condemned merely for asking and seeking information — turn into the kind of doubt that is more of a case of distrust. Unfortunately, this has happened in numerous cases amongst religious seekers who have asked questions about current teachings and practices; religious instructors have either chastised them for merely asking the question, or have simply told others to quit asking so many questions — and no answer is ever given. The uncertainty then turns to distrust and what interest might have existed in the minds of those seekers is now lost, and may never be recovered.

I will be the first to say those who fear questions should be questioned, as it likely there is some faulty reasoning somewhere in their answers for why they do what they do, or teach what they teach. I have experienced numerous cases of this when I questioned some religious teaching or practice, and the response is very telling, to me. My only reasonable conclusions can be that (1) they don’t know why they believe or practice what they do, (2) they don’t really believe what they say they believe, or (3) they have no real defense for what they believe and practice. I am certainly open to other possible reasons, but none of these would engender trust and faith. Some of the responses I have heard over the years have, in fact, given me reason enough to believe that what was being questioned had no justification. When someone tells me, “You just need to believe,” or, “Because I said so,” I am left without reason to believe what has been questioned because that is no answer!

I am aware modern dictionaries define faith as “belief that is not based on proof,” but that is not the kind of faith God requires of us if we seek forgiveness and salvation. God defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1), so I must have some substance to what I believe, and evidence by which I can come to a reasonable conclusion it is worth believing. One who claims belief in something must be able to explain why he or she believes; “Just because” is not sufficient!

And should we be questioned for what we believe or practice, we should not fear questions, if we do indeed have true faith, for truth has no fear of investigation. But if we have examined the testimony of God and the evidence He has given in us in both nature and in the written record of the Bible, and if we have come to a reasonable conclusion that it is true, we will gladly answer questions about why we believe what we believe, or why we do what we do.

Now, let’s get back to that matter of doubt; as stated already, doubt is not, in itself, sinful — but it can be. When it comes down to it, there are two types of doubt one may have; one kind of doubt may actually be encouraging, and the other can be discouraging. Let us consider each:

Doubt That Encourages. This may sound strange to hear that doubt can be encouraging, but I believe it can. When someone comes to me with some doubts about spiritual or religious matters, I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing, but it depends on the attitude of the one with the doubt; and that is the deciding factor between doubt that can be encouraging, and doubt that is discouraging.

One who comes with questions that have arisen from doubt [uncertainty], but who is seeking answers, and who is willing to believe if they have enough proof or evidence, is actually encouraging to me! This means they want to have the kind of faith that is based on a solid foundation of evidence, and has true substance — the very kind of faith God demands. They are unwilling to merely accept “Just because” as an answer or “That’s just the way we’ve always done it” as a reasonable justification for what has been questioned. And neither should they accept such ‘answers.’

And for this one who doubts because they are uncertain, but who is willing to believe if given reasonable answers, there might be numerous question but, again, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Let us be grounded in God’s word well enough that when the questions are asked, we are “ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15), and we are able to give a reasonable answer, “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), and not twisting the Scriptures to fit with what we want to believe by taking the words out of context.

Doubt That Discourages. On the other hand, there are some who have doubt who are a constant source of discouragement. You may know or remember the story of the Israelites as they came to the edge of the Promised Land the first time; it was then that they sent spies into the land to see what the land, the cities, and the people were like (Num. 13:17-20). Remember, this is a land God had said He was giving them (cf. Exod. 6:4; Lev. 25:38), and this was known by all the Israelites. But 10 of the 12 spies came and reported, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we” (Num. 13:31). They saw the land, and that it truly flowed with milk and honey, but they also saw the people and the fortified cities, and they doubted — but it was not reasonable doubt.

Somehow, these 10 men had forgotten that God had brought them out of Egyptian bondage by demonstrating His power over what was then the greatest and most powerful empire in the world. His power decimated the land and it was never as great again. He brought them through the Red Sea and they walked through on dry land. And when Pharaoh and his army tried to follow them, they were completely wiped out when God brought the waters down on them. After this, God provided food and water for the entire nation of Israel [possibly up to 3 million people, with their livestock, too] where such would not naturally be in abundance. He had demonstrated His fearsome presence at Sinai, such that the people were so terrified they asked Moses to speak to them from that day forward, and “let not God speak with us, lest we die” (Exod. 20:19). They had seen all this, yet doubted God would be able to give them victory over those in Canaan?

This bad report — these unreasonable doubts — discouraged the assembly of Israel (Deut. 32:9), to the point they were unwilling to go into the Promised Land. And they would not.

One who doubts, but is seeking answers, should have answers that remove the doubt. The one who has doubts, but will continue doubting despite the evidence and answers, is self-condemned. No answer will be sufficient for them to believe because truth is not what they seek.

What do you seek? Steven Harper