The greenskeeper at a golf course told me he doesn’t water the greens very much in the spring and early summer, because water from the sprinklers doesn’t penetrate far into the soil. With an abundance of water near the surface, the grass would develop only a shallow root system. The greenskeeper wants the turf to send its roots deep to find water. The sprinkler system cannot be active when the course is in use, and later in the summer there will be less rain and more traffic on the grass. In those conditions, the upper layers of the soil dry out and, with only a shallow root system, the grass would quickly turn brown and brittle. Deep roots sustain the grass between waterings.
One of my best friends tells of struggling with doubt some years ago. A young minister at the time, he told of lying on the floor face down, arms outstretched, pleading with God for guidance. He went on to a career of deep spiritual insight and inspiring leadership. I know of several other men with similar experiences. Struggling with doubt forced them to send the roots of their faith deeper.
Another minister I know suffered doubts in college, but his wife told him—and she is the one who told me—that she had warned him to avoid thinking about such difficult questions and had spared him such a struggle. He was a very talented young minister, but his preaching and counsel were always shallow and formulaic. Avoiding doubts had given him shallow roots.
And yet, many Christians seem to think doubt should be avoided at all costs. Do doubts indicate a lack of faith? Are they something to be avoided? That all depends.
Three meanings of doubt
First, we need to understand that we use the word doubt for three very different states of mind. One meaning is uncertainty. There are many settings in life—taking a test, starting a new pursuit, or exploring an idea—where we have some level of confidence, but not being God, who can see the end from the beginning, we cannot be certain. We have doubts.
In other situations, doubt can mean skepticism, a sense that something is unlikely. Our minds remain open to evidence, to persuasion, but experience makes us cautious. In this frame of mind, we might say, “I doubt it.”
A third state of mind often masquerades as doubt, but it is, in fact, mockery, scorn, or disdain. A person with this frame of mind might say, “I don’t believe it,” but what he or she really means is, “I am wise and sophisticated, so I know better; you’re a fool to believe.” Most of us know someone like this—someone who claims to be open to discussion or persuasion but meets every argument with scorn and withering sarcasm.
I’ll share some thoughts on these various forms of doubt in the reverse order from which I gave them to you.
Type three doubt. The Bible is unsparing when it comes to this third kind of “doubt.” The psalmist said, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers” (Psalm 1:1). That’s pretty strong language. Notice that the passage essentially equates “the wicked,” “sinners,” and “mockers,” and makes it clear that the “blessed” should avoid them entirely. In fact, of the few things the Bible tells us God hates, “a proud look” leads the list (Proverbs 6:17, KJV). Whatever motivates the scornful, it is not legitimate doubt.
But what about the other two kinds of doubt—feelings of uncertainty and the belief that something is unlikely? Here the Bible’s advice is much different.
Type two doubt. In the disciple Thomas we have an example of the more severe type of doubt, often referred to as skepticism, of believing that something is improbable or unlikely. Even though his fellow disciples testified of Christ’s resurrection, Thomas remained unconvinced. He declared, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).
We tend to judge Thomas harshly; but frankly, his reaction was quite reasonable. After all, there was not the slightest doubt that Jesus had died. He was crucified, and then a spear was thrust into His side. A guard of Roman soldiers had been assigned to guard His tomb. And although Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, who was there to raise Jesus? Thomas reasoned that the disciples must have been hallucinating.
We are quite blessed by Thomas’s skepticism because he brought up an issue that many of us would have wondered about. Indeed, early in church history the heresy of docetism arose, taking its name from the Greek word dokeo, which means “to appear.” Docetism claimed that Christ did not actually become a human and dwell among us. He only appeared to do so, as some sort of apparition. But Thomas’s point lays that heresy to rest. Not content just to see Jesus, Thomas demanded to poke and prod His wounds. Jesus responded, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (verse 27).
Thomas was not mocking his fellow disciples. He simply believed that what they reported was highly unlikely. Yet, while he had significant doubts, he was willing to believe. And when presented with the evidence, he did believe. He said to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” (verse 28).
The episode ends with this declaration: “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’ ” (verse 29). We often read this as a rebuke to Thomas. But there is another way to look at Thomas’s doubt.
Because Thomas asked for physical evidence, he received it, and he left a legacy for all of the generations of Christians that followed him. In other words, we, who have not seen and yet believe, do not need to investigate further because Thomas did it for us! By honestly expressing his doubts, he eliminated the doubts of countless others!
Type one doubt. A story in Mark’s Gospel tells us a great deal about uncertainty. In chapter 9, the father of a desperately ill boy comes to Jesus. Jesus tells him anything is possible for the one who believes. The man hopes Jesus can help him, but he has doubts. The father replies honestly, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). And Jesus healed the man’s son.
This is a lesson for all of us who experience doubts. We can always say with that father, “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief!”
It’s OK to be human
Feelings of uncertainty are simply part of our human condition. We are not God. We can’t possibly know everything. And this is not limited to Christians. The experience of author C. S. Lewis demonstrates this. In his book Mere Christianity, he wrote, “Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable.” He had doubts both when he was a believer and when he was an atheist.
Doubt is not our enemy; scorn is. Scorn comes from a prideful heart that believes itself wise, while genuine doubt forces us to admit that we lack knowledge. It humbles us. This is a blessing, for we know that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).
So don’t be afraid of your doubts. Instead, welcome them—hug them close. Rightly used, they are not the opposite of faith. They provide you with an opportunity to send down your roots and grow a deeper faith.