The Benefit of the Doubt

I am by nature a skeptic. I question. I doubt. And I have the constant urge to dismiss simple answers to complex questions.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those nihilistic, solipsistic, or Cartesian doubters who needs cold, hard evidence before he believes he exists. Slap me in the face and I’m a believer. But I’d like to think that I have a healthy sense of skepticism. I question traditions that seem superfluous, I critique arguments that appear extreme or too exclusive, and I doubt presumptions that seem, well, too presumptuous.

Most of us would agree that skepticism is somewhat necessary for human survival. A healthy dose of doubt is a form of good judgment or circumspection. As the familiar proverb says, “Doubt is the beginning, not the end, of wisdom.” If I trusted everything, then my wife and I would have eaten those curious-looking mushrooms growing in our basement apartment.

But my moments of doubt often exist somewhere between commonsense skepticism and atheistic denial.  They exist somewhere in the murky middle.

When most Christians doubt God, they don’t doubt his existence. They doubt his nature. They question his decisions, his purposes, and his actions (or lack thereof). Why is God allowing this to happen? Why isn’t God intervening? Why is God silent?  We seriously doubt God’s motives and his ways of dealing with human beings.

Many Christians view this kind of doubt as a vice, a weakness, perhaps even a sin. They claim that doubt leads to indecision or that skepticism is a sign of snobbish intellectualism. Some might even argue that doubt is the antithesis of faith, and thus a direct threat to what the Christian is called to—belief. Basically, those who view doubt as negative often claim that it hinders one from action, commitment, truth, and ultimately, God.

To some extent, I’d say that this understanding of doubt is correct. Jesus certainly treated doubt as something contrary to faith. In Matthew 14, while he pulls a sinking Peter out of the water he says, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Also, the apostle James teaches that a person who doubts is double-minded and groundless, a wave tossed by the wind.

But is doubt always a vice? A weakness? A sin? Does doubt always lead to indecision? Is skepticism just a mask for snobbish intellectualism? If not, how do we answer those who claim that doubt is the antithesis of faith, that it is a direct threat to belief—the very thing Jesus himself calls us to?

While numerous scriptures clearly command us to trust God, and while I certainly believe that agnosticism—the kind that denies that real knowledge of God is possible—is dangerous, I would also argue that doubt and skepticism can propel us into action, can strengthen a desire for commitment, can lead us into a better understanding of truth—and, most importantly, can draw us closer to Jesus. And I think the Bible teaches this “positive” side of doubt, too.

These thoughts on the nature of doubt arose this summer while my wife and I were studying Paul’s letter to the Romans. Each week we would read a chapter and discuss what encouraged us, convicted us, and confused us. Most theologians consider the letter to the Romans to be Paul’s masterpiece, a theological magnum opus that presents an in-depth description of the salvation process. Here Paul explains condemnation, justification, sanctification, glorification, selection, and transformation. In other words, Romans pretty much covers it all. Because I knew Romans included some very complex theological material, I wasn’t too surprised when I found some of the passages in chapter nine about God’s sovereignty quite difficult to swallow. I’d read these verses before, but this time they seemed to be more in conflict with some of my own ideas about God.

Here is one of the more “troubling” passages in that chapter:

“Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not!  For God said to Moses, ‘I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.’ So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it. For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, ‘I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.’  So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen.” (NLT)

As I read these verses, I thought to myself, “Really, Paul? Is this really how God works?” I questioned the text. I was skeptical toward this description of God and his dealings with man.

Now, I don’t claim to fully understand the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, and my purpose here is not to provide an in-depth exegesis of these verses. Instead, I want us to see how these difficult passages can remind us of what may seem to be a completely unrelated point: our doubts about God and the mysteries of how he works can be liberating.

In the verses following the above passage, Paul writes:

Well then, you might say, ‘Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?’ No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God?”

Notice that Paul doesn’t respond to the rebuttal. He doesn’t explain why God works the way he does. Instead, Paul does something more interesting. He keeps God’s nature mysterious. He doesn’t resolve the tensions between the existence of free human agents and a sovereign God. He basically says, “God is above you, beyond you, and your finite human mind cannot understand him, so don’t argue with him.”

The thing that struck me the most as I read these verses was that I wasn’t frustrated that Paul didn’t satisfy my doubts. It didn’t bother me that I still had questions. Instead, I felt strangely content in my continuing uncertainty. I felt liberated. In that moment, my doubt led me to humility. I had been put in my rightful, submissive place. We see this in scripture—how skepticism can lead to a moment of surrender.

One of the most familiar stories about doubt is the story of “doubting Thomas.” Thomas refused to believe the news of Jesus’ resurrection. He required experiential evidence—to see Jesus—before he would believe. Interestingly, Thomas’ doubt led him to an intimate interaction with Jesus, one that radically changed Thomas’ life forever. Placing his own hands in Jesus’ wounds, Thomas passed through a moment of doubt to be propelled into a higher state of submissive faith. He literally touched the truth. He went on to become one of the most passionate missionaries of the Gospel. Various apocryphal records indicate that Thomas was possibly the only apostle who spread the Gospel outside the Roman Empire, becoming the first missionary to India.

But there is another moment of doubt before Thomas’. The other apostles considered the news of the empty tomb as “idle tales” and they “did not believe.” Words were not enough for them. They had to see the truth in order to believe it. But doubt proved to be a motivator, a triggering device. In his moment of unbelief, the skeptical Peter runs to where Jesus was buried in order to discover nothing but linen cloths and a rolled away stone. Peter’s doubt drove him to the empty tomb. His skepticism moved him to search out the truth.

Just as Peter and Thomas’ doubt stirred them into action and a deeper faith, I think that our moments of unbelief, skepticism, or just plain uncertainty can lead us into a closer interaction with Jesus and a better understanding of God. God can use our doubts and uncertainties to do two things. First, to distinguish himself from us; to separate finite man from his infinite maker. Secondly, and simultaneously, to draw us to himself. His mysteriousness moves us to seek him. His “hiddenness” may create doubts in us, but it also creates a sense of fear and awe.

In these moments, doubt is both ironic and paradoxical. Ironically, we skeptics are often the hungriest for truth, and yet our own doubts hold us back from ingesting it. But paradoxically, skepticism keeps us from belief while also leading us to it.

My skeptical attitude toward God’s sovereignty led me to a place of surrender and a deeper belief in and appreciation for God’s mysteriousness. A burden was lifted. I had to let go of that relentless desire to know fully the mysteries of God’s nature. I faced the reality that God is not entirely unknowable, but that he is beyond me, higher than me, and radically different from me.

And I also began to wonder whether God really is offended by our skepticism. I’m convinced that God invites our questioning—just as Jesus invited Thomas to touch his hands and feet—because he of all beings knows he’s beyond our complete comprehension. He also knows that honest skepticism grounded in submissive faith, rather than rebellion or pride, ultimately leads to a deeper knowledge of who he really is.

And though God is beyond our complete comprehension, he’s not completely beyond our reach. Before Jesus pulled a sinking Peter out of the water, Peter was the only disciple walking on the water—the fact that he was there in the first place was the result of his willingness to test, risk, and question what he saw. The others accepted, and stayed in the boat, but Peter tested, and though he sank (as we all do on our journeys of skepticism and doubt), he was the only one who got to walk on the water with Jesus.

I’m convinced that Jesus invites us, too, to take risks, to ask questions, and to not suppress our honest skepticism. It just might be our very doubts that get us out of the boat to walk on water.

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