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  • Pr Lionel Neo (CPC)

On Doubt

What is the role of doubt in a Christian's life? To some Christians, doubt is a state of mind that cannot be tolerated – something to be exorcised. To doubt is to dishonour God and to put our souls in danger. We are reminded of the words Jesus says to Peter, "You of little faith … Why did you doubt?" (Matthew 14:31).

To doubt is to be like 'doubting Thomas', who insisted on touching Jesus's wounds before he could believe that Christ has been risen from the dead – and that is a standard of proof no believer today can demand. Recently, the term 'Deconstruction' has been increasingly used in Christian circles – where Christians begin “dissecting and often rejecting”[1] long held beliefs, even to the point of losing their faith altogether.

At the same time, doubt is an experience common to all Christians, to one degree or another. What should we do when we doubt? In Job’s dialogue with his friends, we see him in the throes of doubt, and we have much to learn from the journey he undergoes.

Truth & Doubt

When Job first opens his mouth in chapter 3, he curses the day of his birth, indirectly calling into question God’s providential ordering of creation. As his dialogue with his friends goes on, and becomes more heated, Job’s questions become pointed, saying things like “Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?” (Job 22:7), or “When a land falls into the hands of the wicked, he [God] blindfolds its judges. If it is not He, then who is it?” (Job 9:24).

Job’s questioning scandalised his friends. They responded with the received wisdom of the age – God is just and sovereign, and therefore Job was suffering because he deserved it. They began accusing Job, even saying things like, “Is not your wickedness great? Are not your sins endless?” (Job 22:5). They tried to aid him with cookie-cutter solutions: “Submit to God and be at peace with Him … If you return to the Almighty, you will be restored.” (Job 22:21-23)

One form of doubt comes about when there is intellectual tension between what we believe and what appears true (either rationally or experientially). While this process is unsettling, I would say that it is oftentimes helpful in our maturation as believers. For none of us has a complete grasp of God’s truth.

Through doubt, what often gets challenged, and even ‘deconstructed’, are underlying, or even unnoticed premises to our beliefs – such as God will always bless us if we behave. As theologian Kristen Sanders says, “[This] process should dismantle certainty where it is not proper … [For] Christian belief is not vested in the intellectual ability of the Christian but in the steadfastness of God.”[2]

Doubt can move us from a formulaic, ‘airtight’, system of beliefs, as in the case of Job’s friends, to something bigger, something more reflective of actual reality. In God’s two speeches to Job, He enlarges Job’s view of the world, speaking about His providential care over parts of creation that Job hardly cares about, such as the mountain goats (39:1), wild donkeys (39:5-9), ostriches (Job 39:13-20). Job comes through the whole experience knowing that he lives in a world that is rife with seemingly inexplicable suffering, but that does not cancel out the fundamental goodness and wonder of creation, and the majesty of its Creator.

But is there a point where one may question too much? Paul de Vries puts it well – he states "doubt is the sincere question, but unbelief is the unwillingness to hear the answer”. In the original Greek of John 20:25, Jesus chides Thomas not for doubting (commonly used words are διστάζω, distazo, or wavering between two positions); but disbelieving (apistos, ἄπιστος).

Doubt is part of our journey of faith, but we should be wary of demanding certainty, in that God has to meet us on our own terms. Ironically, that is a demand that many people, even Christians, do not place on the claims of the world. Let us not be those who readily have faith, and give ourselves over to other belief systems, such as ‘material wealth and success will bring you true satisfaction’ - truth claims that are often swallowed without hesitation and questions. We should be reflective, and question our questioning – are we doing it to deepen our knowledge, or merely to delay our obedience?

Trust & Doubt

In his conversation with his friends, Job’s words showed that his trust in God had been shaken. He longed to return to the good old days where “God watched over [him]” (Job 29:2), but he felt a deep sense of abandonment, even betrayal.

Job addressed God: “Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you” (Job 7:17-21), and he longed to confront God face to face (Job 9:32 - 35), for God to account for His apparent injustices. Of course, we know at the end of the book that God restores Job, and even gets his three friends to apologise to him, for they “have not spoken the truth about [to] me, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7)

Actually, the word אֵלַ֛י, which NIV translated as ‘about’, can also be translated as ‘to’. We know that Job’s speeches was not 100% correct – which is why God also rebuked Job for “obscuring [His] plans with words without knowledge”. (Job 38:2)

But what mattered was that Job went to God and sought God in his pain and confusion. And what matters is that whenever our trust in God is tested by the circumstances in our life, we go to God, bringing our fears, doubt and worry before Him. This is a posture we see throughout the Psalms. God can use those moments of testing to refine and deepen our faith in Him. as Michael Patton writes, “Doubt is not unbelief. Doubt is the bridge that connects our current faith to perfect faith.[3]

And that brings me back to the story of Peter walking on water. Before we are too quick to criticise Peter, we must remember that Peter was the only disciple who stepped out of the boat. Peter’s faith may be little, but it’s a faith that is ready to take steps towards Jesus.

In our journey of faith, there will be moments where our trust may waver, where the waves and the storm may seem overwhelming to us. But we can remember who we can call out to, and who will reach out His hand to keep us from falling. For our faith is ultimately not in our intellectual rigorous system of beliefs, or in our willpower to keep believing, but in the person of Christ, who is living, and always acting in our lives.

[1] [2] [3]

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