Wednesday, August 13, 2014


[Part 3]

Doubt in the New Testament
With all the previous talk about the value of doubt, you might be thinking, but isn’t doubt a negative thing that is criticized in the New Testament? Well, it does seem like that at first glance, but it turns out the words translated “Doubt” are quite vague. Sometimes the English language fails to communicate a concept and this is one of those instances. There are multiple senses of the word in the ancient Greek, so it is no wonder there is confusion.

The New Testament uses two words which are sometimes translated doubt or doubting, which are transliterated as Distazo and Diakrino. The first one, distazo, has a fairly clear meaning: to doubt or waver. The word is found in Matthew 14:31 and 28:17. In the context of the passages, the idea of “wavering” is a reconsidering of something which an individual has already understood to be true or right. We experience this when we know what we ought to do in a circumstance and come up with reasons not to or why it isn’t important. It amounts to going against a truth one has previously understood, or a lack of commitment or follow through in regard to a decision one previously made. This is much different from lacking confidence about something which one finds confusing or does not understand.

On the other hand, diakrino is much more complicated. There are 15 forms of the word used among its 19 occurrences in the New Testament (the different forms of the words refer to the different endings, which indicate different senses of the word). The most common form, diakrinomenos, occurs five times and is translated in the NASB version as: misgivings, disputed, doubting and the one who doubts. But then there are 14 other forms of the word, each which is used only once and the possible meanings, in addition to the four already mentioned, include: to separate, to withdraw (in opposition or by deserting), to hesitate, to discriminate, to make distinction, to oppose (in principle), or to judge (in the positive – to discern, OR in the negative – to view as superior). A sampling of the usage of diakrino is found in: Matthew 16:3; Acts 10:20, 11:2, 11:12; 1 Corinthians 4:7, 6:5; James 1:6, 2:4; Jude 1:9, 22 (NASB).

My intent is not to sort through each Greek word, but to demonstrate that this concept is complicated and there is a lot more to it than just applying the English word and meaning. The task of identifying the intended implication or sense of the word can be quite involved.

A key point of interest here is that there is another word available to the Biblical authors which means to be “at a loss” or “perplexed” about something. The word Aporeo is used a number of times in the New Testament, examples include: Mark 6:20, Luke 24:4, John 13:22, Acts 25:20, and Gal 4:20. The word doubt in English constitutes a lack of confidence which is most often related to confusion or a lack of understanding. This common meaning of doubt is most consistent with Aporeo, which is never translated as “doubt” or associated with a “do not.” Therefore, it would stand to reason that this is not what the authors are referring to when they use the words Distazo or Diakrino, otherwise they could have used the word Aporeo.

We also see a couple examples of individuals doubting within the New Testament text. First there is the example of Thomas, one of the disciples of Jesus, whose reaction to hearing that Jesus was alive was to immediately express his “doubt.” This is understandable since he had just seen Jesus put to death. However, we then see that Jesus is very gracious with him and rather than chastising him, provides an answer to his skepticism. Based on Thomas’ response, it is clear that his “doubts” were sincere, as he was willing to accept the truth once it was shown to him. 

Another example is found with the Bereans in Acts 17:11, “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Upon hearing Paul’s claims about Jesus, they didn’t just accept it blindly, but they wanted to know if it could be true. They responded wisely, as their sincere doubt prompted them to seek a better understanding, and we have no indication that Paul was displeased with this.

These examples reveal the significance of the question of why our doubts exist. Is it because we lack information or have unanswered questions? Is it because we don’t want to accept something in particular? Is it because the idea does not make sense or is confusing in itself? Is it because the ramifications are inconvenient for us? In the case of Thomas and the Bereans, we see that they sought out more information, because they desired to believe in the true God and they responded appropriately to what they found.

False Impressions
It is not uncommon for someone who desires to follow Jesus to feel like God must be disappointed in them because of doubts they continually have, or even due to an occasional doubt. It likely comes back to the misunderstanding of the word “doubt” in the English translation of the New Testament.

Perhaps it could make sense to say that God is disappointed in us if we don’t care about our questions or desire to understand the difficult aspects of faith that we find confusing. Perhaps God is disappointed when we don’t take our faith seriously, or we make excuses for not living accordingly. But He is not disappointed because we don’t understand something or experience a lack of confidence about a particular idea or claim. As we see with Thomas, Jesus responds with an answer, not with disappointment or criticism.

But where did we get the idea that everything within Christianity should be as clear as we want it to be? Where did we get the idea that it would be easy to understand?  Of course some things are simple, thankfully, but if everything about the Christian Faith was perfectly clear because it was just simple, then how would Christianity remain interesting for a lifetime? What should we expect from a system of thought that reveals the nature of God and touches on important aspects of life at the same time?

If it was all easily understood, then we would be inclined to think that we had it all figured out. This would be understandable since there wouldn’t be any difficult ideas or confusing concepts to struggle with. However, there would also be little reason for study and few insights to be had about such simple ideas.

On the other hand, if God understands that some aspects of the Faith are difficult to understand and that people have misunderstandings for many different reasons, then why would He be disappointed when we experience doubts? Doesn’t God know that many of us are not aware of the archaeological evidence, or the Greek, or the historical and cultural context of first century Rome, etc.? Then it seems to me God would want us to look into the things we have questions about in order to reach a better understanding.

But maybe there is something else going on here as well. Could it be that God does not want us to have a sense of self–sufficiency even in our own understanding? I have come to understand many things over the years, but so often it is because of the insights of others that have shed light on something or helped me see more of the big picture.

Could there be something more to the quest for answers than simply getting an answer? Could it be like a team sport, where there is so much more to the journey than simply winning a game?

If our faith has no room for doubt, then it is likely that we will not grow much in our understanding of the Christian Faith – or the true God – because we will not be looking for answers. In order to be realistic, of course we don’t want to be questioning constantly and we need time to just be where we are in our faith, so it is important to have times without doubt. We also hope to feel close to God at times, however, we need times where we are prompted to wonder and seek out a better understanding. Therefore, as we encounter periods of doubt, these are times which are necessary for us to develop both our understanding and greater confidence in our faith.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


[Part 2]

There are two common responses to the experience of doubt. One is to conclude that the claim in question must not be true, which assumes that we have all the necessary information about the matter. Another response is to expect a coherent explanation for the claim, which assumes that we are missing some important information about the matter.

When I have personally encountered times where something within Christianity is not making sense, I am one who has assumed there must be something I am missing, rather than assuming the point in question must not be true. I think the reason I am inclined that way, is that over and over I have come to discover some aspect that I misunderstood or information that I was lacking.

When difficult ideas within the Christian Faith arise, one cause for concern is that rather than seeking out a coherent explanation, many have relied on their personal experience of God in order to have confidence accepting them. The experience of a close relationship with God is often essential to providing such confidence. However, the point of concern is that the relational experience can become a substitute for wrestling with ideas and coming to understand difficult aspects of the Faith. This approach will set some up for a second source of doubt, which is a feeling of distance from God. This experience is epitomized by the lack of a sense of God’s presence and as a result, some think, “I must not be very close to God…” Due to the apparent lack of closeness to God, one may wonder if their faith is even real.

In his blog post, Why it’s Good to Doubt God, Peter Enns describes the experience as, “A sense of painful alienation and distance from God that causes distress, anxiety, discouragement, despair, and depression. All Christians experience this sooner or later—some more intensely than others, some for longer times than others. But the feeling is the same: they lose their sense of closeness to God and conclude that they no longer have faith. And so they despair even more.”

A period of time like this might feel like what we find in Psalm 88:13–14: “But I, O LORD, have cried out to you for help, and in the morning my prayer comes before you. O LORD, why do you reject my soul? Why do you hide your face from me?”

This experience can arise during a time of suffering that goes on and on with apparently no response from God, or in the midst of a tragedy. In such times, understanding can seem out of reach. However, it is not only these circumstances that produce such a distant feeling, there could be much simpler reasons, such as a shift in how God is relating to us.

An example of what I am getting at is that it seems unlikely God would want us to continue in our faith with a false perception of who He is. Therefore, He would be inclined to bring about new insights and perspective. We can only work with the insight and perspective that we have, so if what we are expecting from God makes Him out to be a different sort of god, then the real God must work with us to bring about an accurate perspective and understanding of Himself. If God is challenging us to see Him differently, it would make sense that He might seem distant since change is often difficult and uncomfortable.

Often, the individual assumes there must be something deficient with them. But in reality, rather than there being a lack of faith, it is likely that some false ideas about God are just fading away. We are slowly working our way toward truth and a relationship with the real God, an important part of sanctification. It is the shortcomings of one’s current expectations that result in God seeming far off.

The sense of distance from God is extremely effective at pruning our reasoning and expectations. It is essential to focus on truth and conviction as our foundation, and to assess why our beliefs are true apart from our present experience. We also need to reevaluate what we expect from God, why we have our particular expectations, and where they came from.

The experience of this kind of doubt challenges both the foundation of our faith and the reason we worship. Is the faith we claim to have based on how we feel or on the evidence? Do we worship God because everything is going well in our life or God did what we asked, or do we worship God because of who He is?

I have dealt with the struggle to make sense of different ideas and claims of Christianity regularly, as I have spent time with people in ministry. But to be forthcoming, I want to acknowledge that I am not especially familiar with God feeling absent; it is not something I have experienced on a deep level. I have gone through a couple emotional times where it feels like God isn't there, but I know others have endured much darker times. That being said, I will keep my thoughts on this point minimal here, recognizing that others have much more insight on the topic.

What I am currently struck by is what seems to be a point of relationship between both causes of doubt, in that either way we lose false ideas we have assumed or held onto about God. It is necessary to recognize that there is more to learn and that we need to pursue a deeper understanding. If we look to overcome a lack of confidence in the factual truth of our faith by means of a sense of closeness with God, then what happens when that experience of closeness fades into a sense of distance? We will find ourselves experiencing doubt in both areas and it will seem like our faith is being assaulted from all directions. Again, it is only real understanding that will satisfy any doubts, substitutes will only push it down the road.

It turns out that both causes of doubt are the result of a lack of understanding. We don’t understand how something makes sense, or we have a misunderstanding of God’s relationship to us in this life. But these also come back to false expectations. We expect our relationship with God to look or feel a certain way, or we expect everything to make sense to us in spite of the small slice of history that we actually understand and the slight percentage of information that we actually possess. Where did we get such expectations? A passionate testimony we heard at a youth retreat? Some Sunday school teacher when we were a child? From someone we saw on TV? Perhaps we were told that the “Gospel” is simple enough for a child to understand, which is true enough, but I’m betting they didn't say the same about “Christianity.”

Christianity is a complex system of beliefs and concepts which can be difficult to understand accurately or fit together. That being said, there is no sense in pretending things make sense if they actually don’t. It is not realistic to think that we don’t misunderstand anything, or that we aren't missing something – as if we possess all the important information. The reality is that things will not make sense sometimes, based on the information we have, because we actually are missing something. It would be unwise to assume that there is not more to it than we are aware of.

Ultimately, doubt is the catalyst by which we prune our own ideas about God and come into a clearer understanding of the true God. Sincere doubt is not weakness or a lack of faith, rather it is a faith which desires to be built on something real. Engaging such doubt is a catalyst for growth.

(In Part 3, I will address the use of "doubt" in the New Testament.)

Saturday, August 2, 2014


[Part 1]

Have you ever been told that, “If you had real faith you wouldn't doubt”? Or perhaps you have thought, “Maybe I’m not serious about God because I have all these doubts…”

There are a couple key reasons for our doubts about God or Christianity. One is simply a lack of confidence and the other is a sense that God is distant. In this post I will address doubt in relation to a lack of confidence. I will address the other source of doubt, as well as the use of the word “doubt” in the New Testament in parts 2 and 3; so hold on if you are wondering why I don’t address those things here – it’s coming.

When Christians experience “doubts,” it is generally about a particular idea or aspect of Christianity. In its simplest form, doubt amounts to a lack of confidence or sense of uncertainty. We can experience a lack of confidence about any number of things. Doubts can pertain to whether God really cares about us, the purpose of prayer, a specific doctrine like the Trinity or Hell, God’s existence or God’s goodness, how Jesus could be the way or the historical accuracy of the Bible.

During such times, some will assume there is either something wrong with them or that they are doing something wrong. Many have the idea that doubt destroys faith, because they may have heard that “doubt is the enemy of faith” some time ago. Therefore, when they find themselves unsure about some aspect of Christianity, they will think: maybe I’m not really committed, maybe my faith isn't real, maybe I don’t pray enough, or come up with something else they aren't “doing.”

I think all of these ideas are misguided because, first of all, the assumption is that doubt is a bad thing which serves no purpose; and secondly, because it assumes doubt is due to some failure on our part, rather than a natural part of wrestling with truth. In fact, I think this lack of confidence is largely due to a lack of teaching about the things we actually experience doubts about. Hopefully it is not surprising that there are a vast number of legitimate questions pertaining to Christian beliefs, as well as the Bible. If someone feels like there isn't much of an answer to some of them, then the natural thing would be to experience some doubt.

If you do not consider yourself a Christian, then you have likely experienced some doubt about the entire Christian Faith, rather than just an aspect. I would expect this is partly because when you had questions, you heard explanations you found to be completely unsatisfying and lacking substance. It is likely that you determined it was a waste of time to even ask anymore.

I say this due to the sad reality that when difficult questions are raised about the Christian Faith, Christians have been known to give answers that result in the questioner wishing they had never asked. Some answers which have been known to pop up include: you just have to accept it; you just need more faith; you just have to pray about it; we shouldn't question God; or even worse, faith is not supposed to make sense… Some are worse than others, but none of these responses answer the question – any question at all.

Some of us have heard similar answers and became so disenchanted that we lost interest in Christianity. If that’s your experience, have you ever thought that such responses come from people who simply don’t know the answer either? Think about it this way, if I was to ask you a question about something you have studied, perhaps your major in college, and you knew the answer to my particular question, wouldn't you explain the aspect that I found confusing? I think it is safe to say that this would be the natural thing to do as a normal human being. So what does this mean about someone who does not answer the question and instead makes it seem like there isn't anything worth thinking about? It would seem that they lack understanding and insight as well, but are not willing to admit it. At least the person expressing their doubts is honest enough to reveal the fact that they don’t understand something or are confused.

The more we buy into negative responses to doubt, when we encounter our own doubts, we will be inclined to just hope it will go away rather than discuss it. If it doesn't, then we may enter into some form of self-blame; so now we are back to things like: maybe I’m not really committed, my faith must be weak, or I just need to be more serious. Again, thinking if we really had faith then we wouldn't have these doubts.

Most commonly, however, we simply are not aware of the information which is necessary to make sense of what we find confusing. If you think about the so called “Doubting Thomas,” he was given the information needed in order for him to believe with confidence. This is just how things work with our minds, because none of us want to believe something that turns out to be false.

Thank God that we have the natural capacity to doubt and also to address those doubts. If your friend or child expresses doubts about Christianity, be thankful that they don’t just accept whatever they hear, because they will hear some crazy things in our society and even in churches. It is doubt that enables us to identify false teaching, because we wouldn't even have thought twice about it if not for a little skepticism, which prompts us to look into it. Suddenly, questioning things can become a strength. It is also one’s doubt about the goodness of God that will ultimately lead them to an understanding of God’s goodness. There is a tremendous difference between accepting something as a reality and understanding that reality.

In fact, St. Augustine is credited with having once said, “Doubt is but an element of faith.” That doesn't sound like he viewed it as a negative thing to be avoided. If we think about why anyone would say this, it is important to see the potential result of our doubts. Doubts naturally lead us to question things. Asking questions will help us find answers, we would hope. As we find more answers and things make sense, this leads to understanding. So if everything just magically made sense to us and we never questioned and looked into anything, then we would never gain true understanding.

However, it is important to realize that there are different kinds of doubt:  Skeptical and Sincere. Sincere doubt says, “I don’t understand this,” and seeks an answer. Skeptical doubt is suspicious and says “I don’t buy it.” Such doubt will often be incredulous and add the qualifying statement, “There is no way that could make sense.” Skeptical doubt assumes there is no answer.

Sincere doubt can arise from a dissatisfaction with the answers we have heard, which causes us to insist on an answer that actually pertains to the question, rather than something irrelevant or an emotional appeal. For example, when asked why we believe in God or Jesus, an answer to the effect of: “I just know in my heart,” will be quite frustrating to someone who is actually interested in an answer and laughable to the critic. It is easy to recognize that people of every religion could say the same thing – because they do.

In Your God Is Too Safe , Mark Buchanan gives further insight into this when he states “Sometimes to doubt is to merely insist that God be taken seriously not frivolously, to insist that our faith is placed in and upheld by something other than seeming conjuring tricks.” If only we could recognize this when we are experiencing doubt. It seems if we understood that it was the lack of concrete reasoning that was causing our lack of confidence, then we would know what we should be looking for in order to sort through the particular idea we are struggling with.

Doubt should motivate us to seek out real answers.

Where would we be without doubt? If we did not question things, wouldn't we just accept them blindly, relying on what we call blind faith? It seems to me, we would accept everything if we didn't doubt at least sometimes. That’s a good method for believing false ideas.

Not only would we regularly believe false things, there would be no discussion and not much learning. Without doubt, we would simply accept any idea we heard without question and without any reasons to accept it. But isn't a key reason for doubt the fact that something is not making sense? We think about a few ideas and find it difficult to see how they fit together; it might even appear that there is a contradiction. This naturally results in a lack of confidence that something is really true.

To go on pretending that the things we don’t understand and which cause us to experience doubts are no big deal, does not benefit anyone. Our doubts will reveal how seriously we take our faith. I don’t mean the doubt itself, but how we handle that doubt – whatever it might be. To handle a doubt that arises by using it as motivation to look into a topic, or research how others have explained a question, suggests that we are serious about understanding our faith. On the other hand, to use our doubts to justify not taking our faith seriously is the direct opposite of the purpose of the doubt itself.

It is because of our doubts that we discover the solid ground to base our faith on. This is not the result of some lack of doubt, it is the result of seeking truth, which our doubts compelled us to do. A faith which has never looked doubt in the eye is often a faith which is naïve and presumptive. It is the faith which has faced its own questions and challenges that will ultimately be confident and steadfast, because it has been, so to speak, refined by the fire.

You may have heard that the remedy for doubt is faith, but I think the real remedy is understanding. However, the pursuit of understanding is the result of taking our faith seriously. It is important to seek out people with whom it is safe to wrestle with questions, so that ultimately we will come through the process of not only clarifying our beliefs, but owning our own faith.

The worst thing we can do with our questions is to act like they don’t matter or don’t exist. In the end, gaining a deeper understanding will strengthen our faith and produce confidence.

If not for doubts, we would be left with a faith deprived of understanding.