Is There Room for Doubt in Faith?

Image by Pensiero via Flickr

Image by Pensiero via Flickr

Many Christians today assume that faith is the antithesis of doubt. In this view, a person’s faith is thought to be strong to the extent that they don’t question their beliefs or struggle with God in whom they believe. As widespread as this view is, I believe it is unbiblical and profoundly unhelpful.

My experience as a pastor and professor has taught me that when people assume faith and doubt are incompatible, they invariably try to avoid the latter. Indeed, when faith is equated with psychological certainty, the experience of cognitive dissonance—an experience that is the precondition for almost all learning—easily gets interpreted as something that is evil and therefore is to be avoided at all costs. For obvious reasons, those who are afflicted with this unfortunate model of faith understandably find it hard, if not impossible, to honestly acknowledge, let alone feel the full force of, the merits of perspectives that challenge their belief system. They rather quickly embrace whatever “solutions” that are available to them, not because these perspectives adequately address the challenges, but simply because they are then enabled to enjoy the certainty that their views are correct.

To challenge this tendency, consider the name God gave his covenant people, “Israel.” According to the Genesis narrative, this name goes back to a rather bizarre event that took place at a turning point in Jacob’s life. This forefather of the nation of Israel apparently found himself wrestling with the Lord, in the form of a man, for an entire night (Gen. 32: 24-32). Oddly enough, we are told that the Lord “could not overpower him” and that Jacob would not let the man go until he “blessed” him (v 25). It was because of this tenacity that the Lord renamed him “Israel” (Yisra’el), which, according to this narrative, signifies one who struggles with God (v. 28). It was for this reason that God’s people were called “Israelites”—people who tenaciously wrestle with God, just as their forefather had done.

The scriptures are filled with examples of Jacob-like wrestling matches with God. The biblical “lament” genre – including the “complaint against God” tradition – is found throughout the Old Testament. Many Psalms boldly raise questions, express doubts and even level accusations about God’s faithfulness while challenging the justice of his providential rule (e.g. Psa 89: 19-44). Similarly, as his pain and anger grew, Job did not stop short of accusing God of grossly mistreating him and others. Though God eventually chastised him for his theological misstatements (for which Job himself repented, see Job 42), God nevertheless commended the honesty and gutsiness of his talk. Unlike his pious-sounding “friends,” Job’s speech was honest and authentic (kûn, 42:7).[1] Yahweh clearly appreciates raw truth more than pious platitudes. Similarly, the prophet Habakkuk boldly charged God with treating the wicked better than the righteous (e.g. Hab. 1:3-4, 13), while Jeremiah had the audacity to accuse God of deceiving and torturing his own people (Lam.). Most importantly, Jesus himself endorses this tradition both in his teachings (e.g., Luke 11:5-9; 18:1-8) and by example (i.e., in his “cry of dereliction” on the cross).

While expressing doubts and challenging God may be antithetical to the modern, popular notion of faith, it is perfectly compatible with the biblical understanding. The essence of “faith” in the biblical tradition is not blind, unthinking submission or even an unwavering psychological certainty. Rather, faith is fundamentally a covenantal concept that expresses one’s willingness to trust another and to be trustworthy in relation to another.

—If you want to explore this topic more, check out Benefit of the Doubt.

Click here for a sermon series on this topic.

[1] The Hebrew word kûn has the connotation of being “straight.” See R. L Harris, G. L Archer and B. K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody, 1980), I:433-34. For further discussion on the theology of Job and the role Job’s inaccurate depictions of God play, see G. A. Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 221-26, 403-06. On Job as an example of the OT complaint-against-God (or “faithful revolt”) tradition, see Kynes, “Trials of Job.”

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