My doubts about doubt

My doubts about doubt image

The Archbishop of Canterbury has grabbed a little attention in recent days for admitting to the occasional doubt over God’s existence—much to the delight, or at least, amusement of a ready chorus of sceptics.  Indeed, as much as the Archbishop doesn’t deserve our ridicule, I must confess it’s a little hard not to think of that hilarious, if notorious, interchange in Yes Minister where Sir Humphrey quips that when it comes to the Church of England, ‘God is an optional extra’!

Of course, it’s easy to get a little too excited about a couple of relatively unremarkable comments.  There’s hardly anything here that warrants a victory for scepticism, or alternatively, offers some kind of radical new paradigm for Christian discipleship.  In any event, surely the Archbishop is absolutely right: prelate or not, there is nothing at all abnormal about doubt in the Christian experience.  The vast majority of believers will attest to nagging qualms, the occasional crippling fear, and even, perhaps, moments or seasons of awful darkness, when all the assurances of God’s word and his people really struggle to shine through.

Doubt is perfectly normal. And in defending the Archbishop’s frank admission, a number have rightly pointed that out.  After all, the scriptures are full of doubters, even among otherwise heroes of the faith: Moses, David, John the Baptist, and perhaps most famously of all, Thomas the Apostle.

Still, it seems to me there’s a difference between honesty about our struggles with doubt and glamorising it, as if it were some kind of virtue.

There’s nothing smart or brave about doubt.  It might take courage to admit it, but in itself, it’s not a virtue.  In fact I was puzzled to see that one Christian writer recently described doubt as a ‘sign of faith’.  It is not.  It is a sign of unbelief.  Nowhere does the bible commend doubt.  In fact, on many occasions it does precisely the opposite.  After all, faith in the bible is so much more than mere assent to a lifeless list of doctrines.  To have faith is to trust God, to take him at his word, to be confident that his ways are always true and best.  To doubt, then, is not just an intellectual problem, but a tragic failure of trust.  And God doesn’t ever respond to it by somehow endorsing or encouraging it, but by answering it: ‘Put your finger here; see my hands’, the risen Jesus reprimands Thomas, ‘stop doubting and believe’ (Jn 20.27).

For many centuries, theologians have rightly grasped that assurance is of the essence of faith.  That might sound a little strange, as if Christian believers ought to be cocksure ‘know-it-alls’ when it comes to God.  But, of course, in describing faith this way, these theologians are not claiming that this certainty is the same as being sure that ‘one plus one equals two’.

To accept the truth about God and his Son by faith is not the same as knowing some self-evident mathematical fact.  There’s so much about what we believe that we simply don’t know.  As the Apostle Paul readily admits, now we only ‘know in part’.  For all the depth and wisdom of our Christian profession, it’s little more than a fleeting reflection in a mirror, compared with the glories that are to come (1 Cor 13.12).  Indeed, there’s a sense in which the greatness and wonder of God will always eclipse our tiny little brains (Rom 11.33-5).

But that doesn’t for a second mean we need to lack assurance about what we believe.  In fact, the same theologians will even say that faith’s certainty will always be greater than the firmest possible mathematical or scientific convictions.  Why is that?  Because there’s nothing more certain or true than God.  However precise and accurate human science may appear, there’s always the chance we could be wrong.  But with God that is simply an impossibility: he is the God of truth who ‘cannot lie’ (Nu 23.19; Dt 32.4; Tit 1.2; Heb 6.18).  And that goes for his word too (Jn 17.17).  Just like God himself, there’s nothing doubtful or obscure about his word: it is, as many have rightly described it, ‘true’, ‘authoritative’, and ‘clear’.  To say anything less is to cast a shadow on God himself.

What all this means, then, is that assurance is essential to Christian faith.  But the important thing is, faith doesn’t derive its certainty from some internal genius or heroism, but solely from its gloriously true and unshakeable object.

The certainty of faith need not equate, then, to proud belligerence, or a narrow-minded indifference to subtlety and complexity, or to the myriad of things we simply do not know.  Faith does not claim to comprehend the truths it believes inside out.  Nor does the certainty of faith deny the co-existence of doubt.  The frailty and brokenness of our daily existence is inevitably marked by all kinds of fleshly struggles, even, at times, the paradoxical juxtaposition of doubt and unbelief.

But Christian faith does not respond to doubt with despair.  It turns doubt to God in prayer.  It is normal for a Christian to cry out to God, ‘Lord I believe, help now my unbelief’ (Mk 9.24), just as it was normal for the Psalmists to bring their many doubts to God in anguish, desperation, and even protest, knowing for sure that he alone is the answer.  But none of this is to glamorise doubt.  It is simply prayer.  And prayer is the mark of faith.

Let’s be clear then, certainty is not overrated after all: praise God; it is of the essence of that precious gift called Christian faith.

Dr Andrew Leslie lectures at Moore College. His area of research interest is historical and systematic theology with an explicit anchor in the Reformation.

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