THE DILEMMA OF DOUBT
By Pastor Glenn Pease
It is a pain to struggle with doubt, but there is a great debate as to whether this is a helpful or harmful type of suffering. In Camelot, King Arthur says to Lancelot that he is satisfied he did the right thing in starting the round table. Lancelot replies, "Your majesty, did you ever doubt it?" And Arthur responds, "Lance, only a fool never doubts."
An army of followers will march to that drum beat, and praise the virtue of doubt. But they will face a mighty host who feel just the opposite; that only a fool would ever doubt. One of these leaders writes,
Is there no knowledge to be had?
Has God not spoken once for all?
Indeed He has, all doubt is mad
And destined to disastrous fall.
For God is God, and truth is true.
All doubt is sinful in His sight,
And doubters will have cause to rue
Their doubt through hell's undoubted night.
So the authorities agree, you are damned if you do, or damned if you don't doubt. Thus we are stuck with the dilemma of doubt. It is always confusing when the same thing can be good or evil, for this forces us to think and be discerning. We would prefer that all the good guys road on white horses, and all the bad guys road on black horses. That way, you don't have to strain to evaluate and discern, for you just know by the visual evidence.
Have you ever turned TV on in the middle of a story, and watched it for a few minutes. It can be very frustrating because you do not know the context of the story, and you do not know who the heroes are, and who are the villains. The result is, you do not know where you stand, and who you are for or against in the conflict. The bad guy may be so deceptively noble that you are attracted to him before you discover he is the villain. We can only feel comfortable in our convictions when we have the whole context before us, and can see how each piece fits the whole.
Our text in Luke 7 will help us see the dilemma of doubt in its full context so we can grasp how people can come to such radically opposite conclusions. In this text we see that both sides of the battle are correct. Doubt is both demanded and damnable. It has both positive and negative qualities that make it a cause for both helpful and harmful suffering. In order to see the whole we want to examine the individual parts of this dilemma, and we start with the negative.
I. DOUBT IS DAMNABLE.
None are so blind as those who will not see, and Jesus describes the Pharisees, and experts in the law, as deliberate doubters who refused to see the light that God has put in front of their face. They are locked into a damnable doubt that God would ever do anything apart from them. The result is that no amount of evidence will overcome their blindness.
God sends John the Baptist as a solemn, somber, and serious prophet, and they reject him as a madman with a demon. God then sends His Son as a life-loving leader who joins his people for the sharing of the enjoyable social events of life. They reject him as too worldly; a glutton, wine bibber, and friend of tax collectors and sinners.
Jesus describes them like spoiled children who don't want to play funeral or wedding. They will not be led, but stubbornly resist all evidence so that no light can penetrate their dungeon of doubt, and they remain in the darkness of disbelief. You cannot find any better example of the danger of doubt. These blind leaders of the blind were literally damned by their doubt. Heaven was at their fingertips, but their doubt was leading them to hell and separation from Christ who offered them eternal life.
It is true that some of these leaders, like Joseph of Arimathea began to doubt their doubts, and came to the place where they believed. But most never did, and must have had great fears that it might be true that Jesus was the Messiah, for He did many miracles before their very eyes. The unbeliever has more to lose than anyone, and so his doubts are very frightening. Those who attack the believer try to throw him into a state of doubt, but this is a two edge sword, and cuts even deeper into the unbeliever when you throw him into doubt about his disbelief. A young skeptic said to Archbishop Temple, "You only believe what you believe because of your early upbringing." Temple replied, "You only believe that I believe what I believe because of my early upbringing because of your early upbringing." The skeptic was banged into silence by his own boomerang.
Remember, doubt is really the faith of unbelief, and you can throw a scare into the doubter by causing him to doubt that his doubt is a sure thing. Doubt is a valid weapon for the soldier of light to use in combat with those in darkness. Unbelievers must be tormented by the fear that maybe they are wrong, and belief is right. This is the way the lost are saved. But some are so blind they will not see the flaws in their doubt. They believe their unbelief is the final word, and they doubt all that contradicts it. Doubters give doubt such a bad name that we seldom see that it also has a positive side that we must consider.
II. DOUBT IS DEMANDED.
John the Baptist represents the doubter who is just the opposite of the Pharisees. Their doubt drove them to the denial of all evidence, but his doubt drove him to seek more evidence. John was in prison for doing the will of God, and even one so use to being deprived of life's luxuries, can not be happy in such bondage. John began to doubt whether or not Jesus was really the Messiah. This one who said of Jesus, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world," was now isolated and felt forsaken. His personal crisis led him into the shadows of doubt, and he asked his disciples to go to Jesus and ask Him right out if He was the one who was to come, or if they should expect someone else?
John was saying, I have lost my certainty and lack assurance, and I need some evidence to eliminate the doubts that are creeping into my faith. This kind of doubt can hurt, but it is like the pain of exercise; it hurts, but it leads to the strengthening of the muscle. Doubt that motivates a man to seek for more evidence is not harmful to his faith, but helpful, for it will lead him, as it did John, to get that which supports his faith. Jesus did not say, go back and tell John I've had it with him. If he can't take a crisis like being thrown into a dungeon without doubt, then he is no friend of mine. Jesus did not condemn this doubt at all, but responded with the very thing John needed-evidence. The very things that were to happen when the Messiah came, are happening. The sick are being healed; the blind are made to see; lepers are restored; and the dead are even raised, and the poor are receiving the good news.
The Bible does not call this kind of doubt damnable, but rather, says it is demanded as one of the weapons of warfare in the battle of light and darkness. Paul stated it in I Thess. 5:21, "Test everything, hold fast to the good." The Christian is to face this world of so many false prophets and cults with doubt; a doubt that refuses to accept anything without testing it according to God's Word. Jesus expected to be tested Himself, and said, don't believe me because I say something, believe me because of my works. In other words, talk is cheap, and we need to see the fruit of what is said in action, and until we do, doubt is our ally to keep us from being led astray.
If we care to avoid being tossed about by every wind of doctrine, we must be doubters who question, test, and evaluate, and be discerning as to what is of God and what is not. Doubt becomes a partner with faith in helping us discern the will of God. Tennyson said, "There lives more faith in honest doubt believe me, than in half the creeds." Rosalind Rinker said, "Faith and doubt coexist to some degree within everyone." We are all like the man who came to Jesus and said, "Lord I believe, help thou mine unbelief." He had both faith and doubt, and so it was with John the Baptist, and so it is with Christians all through history.
It is important that we see this so that we corral our doubts and make them servants of faith rather than enemies of faith. It is not wrong or evil when you get overwhelmed by the burdens of life to doubt the workings of God. This can be a time of great growth if you do not fear it, but recognize that the circumstances demand doubt that seeks for more light to support faith. When Rosalind Rinker went through a time of doubt as a Christian author, Bill Stern, the director of Young Life told her, "You haven't begun to know what you believe until you have had a few doubts." She came to the point where she learned not to fear her doubts, for they helped her become a more mature Christian by forcing her to probe and search, and think through her faith, so it could stand up strong under attack. Those who have not faced the doubts can be overwhelmed and lose their faith, if they have not thought through a crisis before it strikes.
Rosalind Rinker pressed on into the ocean of infinite truth instead of waiting in the shallow water of superficial faith, and she became stronger, and wrote, "There was a time when people with serious doubts and questions about God disturbed me, now I can smile with understanding while assuring them they are on the road to new discoveries."
Young people are notorious for going through a time of doubting all they have heard in church, and what they have been taught at home. They feel they cannot swallow all they have been fed. This is no time to panic and condemn them. They are simply going through the process of developing a first hand, rather than a second hand, faith. This is good, and not evil.
Job was a great doubter, yet God preferred his honest doubt to the superficial faith of his comforters. They were dogmatic believers in orthodox views. They said all who suffer deserve to suffer, because they are being punished for their sin. Job said, I not only doubt it, I deny it, for that is a false view of life and suffering, and I will not let you cram it down my throat, however orthodox and traditional it is. Job refused to join their chorus which went: That old time religion is good enough for me. He said, its not good enough for me, and I want a better understanding of the issue. God responded to this great doubter with favor, and the orthodox believers he condemned.
The book of Job makes it clear that doubt can be, and often is, the key factor in overcoming a falsehood that has gotten a hold of the minds of even the godly. Thank God for great doubters like Martin Luther who said, "I cannot believe God keeps people in purgatory a certain length of time depending on how much their family is willing to pay to get them released." We are not called to have faith in everything that claims to be food for the soul. We are called to test it and evaluate it, and judge it by its fruit. To have faith in everything, or to believe in everything is the same as believing nothing. The most watered down faith you can have is a faith that says one religion is as good as the next. Robert Ingersall, the famous American atheist, had what sounds like a noble faith. He wrote back in 1888, "I belong to the Great Church which holds the world within its starlit aisles; that claim the great and good of every race and clime; that finds with joy the grain of gold in every creed...."
The Christian cannot say this, and so the atheist can sound more noble then the Christian. But the Christian has to be committed to doubt, for error and folly, corruption and deception, are everywhere in this fallen world. It is to be partners with folly not to doubt. We need to doubt that everything said about God, or for God, is true. We need to doubt that God approves of everything people believe and do in His name. Doubt is demanded for those who are committed to the Word of God, for the world is flooded with ideas that are based on human cleverness and deception rather than the mind of God. Jesus warned his disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and beware of wolves in sheep clothing. Test everything says Paul. Nothing should escape the dynamics of doubt, for that is our protection against faith which is folly. True faith needs doubt to protect it, and keep it free of error and nonsense. Doubt is an ally of true faith.
Mike Yaconelli, the editor of Agape Force grasped this truth and expressed it forcefully. "Frankly, I'm bored by so many Christians today. You can't carry on an intelligent discussion because they know everything, have an opinion on all subjects and have no questions." Someone said a Sunday School student only really begins to grow when he stops answering the questions, and begins to question the answers. That is what he is getting at. So many Christians fear questions, for it implies doubt that we have all of the answers. Doubt is the enemy, and so do not give doubt a foothold by questioning tradition.
Yaconelli goes on, "I am no longer intimidated by those who, because of my questions, have written me off as a spiritual casualty. In fact, I'm beginning to see that having all the answers may deny me the exhilaration of a constantly growing faith that wagers what I know of me on what I know of Christ. Maybe our easy answers have caused us to miss the thrill of discovery, the freshness of uncharted horizons, the excitement of saying, "I don't know" and then trusting Christ anyway. For some reason not having all the answers has become unwritten sin. I am free from that now. I can admit my doubts, my weaknesses, my insufficiency-knowing Christ is sufficient, and trusting him with all my heart, and still feel inadequate."
He is not saying, I doubt Christ, but I doubt that I fully understand Christ, and am being Christlike in all my conduct and convictions. That is good doubt, for what he is saying is that he refuses to believe that Christians have all the answers, and that they, like Job's friends, can set everybody straight on all the issues of life. He has his doubts, and because of his doubts he is compelled to seek for more light, and thereby become a growing Christian. It is a paradox, but the uncertain and doubt filled Job was more pleasing to God than his cocksure dogmatic friends who had all the answers, and no doubts.
That is why doubt is not just recommended, it is demanded by the Bible, for without it man so easily drifts into equating his convictions with the Word of God. This leads to idolatry of man made systems and ideas, and a loss of motivation to constantly seek to get more light from God's Word. Why seek if you think you have it all? But if you doubt that you have it all, you will seek for more. That is what John the Baptist was doing. He was seeking for more light, and that is good doubt that motivates such a search. The Pharisees had none of this kind of doubt. They knew it all, and had all the answers, and were thus blind to God's new light in Christ. Their lack of this demanded doubt led them to the blindness of damnable doubt where they doubted all that was true, and ended in the darkness of disbelief.
Had they only doubted that they had all the answers; Had they only doubted that they possessed all the light that God had; Had they only doubted that they alone could be right, they may have ended up as soldiers of faith, for that doubt would have opened them up to the Christ they rejected. Do not be down on doubt that leads men to search for more light. Charles Spurgeon was a strong Calvinist, yet he was not down, even on the doubt that came into one's life that makes you wonder if you are really a Christian. He writes, "We are told by certain devines, that we should never doubt our safety. Beloved, we should never doubt God, but I am inclined to think that no man who exercises a holy watchfulness over himself, and a holy earnestness to be found accepted at the last, can be at all times without doubt as to his own interest in Christ."
He goes on to say that some who do not doubt take it for granted that they are safe regardless of their life, and they drift from God and holiness. It is better to doubt once in a while, and so to keep examining your life, and make sure you are living in a faith pleasing to God. In other words, doubt keeps the Calvinist enough like the Arminian to keep them from being presumptuous, and thus motivated to strive for sanctification. The Arminian needs to doubt his theology, and find security. The Calvinist needs to doubt his theology, and live an examined life for security. Doubt is what keeps all theology in balance.
The point is, doubt can always be made a virtue if it is handled right, and used as an opportunity for growth. John the Baptist was using his this way, but the Pharisees were using their doubt as an excuse to not grow, and a shield to prevent their having to see the light. There are doubtless some Christians who never doubt, but it is doubtful they are very strong Christians. It is the Christian who has gone through inner debates of doubt that has grown and become strong in faith. Many can testify with Dostoeveski who wrote, "It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My "Hosanna" is born of a furnace of doubt."
We need to stop fearing doubt and recognize it as an ally to faith. People who fear doubt too much are often repressing doubt. The famous Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal said, "He who fearth to doubt, Lord, in that fear doubteth Thee." Progress in almost all realms of life depends on someone doubting that all is known in that area of life. They press on to new discoveries, and so we need to doubt that we know all we can of Christ, and that we are all we can be in Christ. It is this doubt that leads us to be open for growth.
There are many who have had this positive view of doubt. Galileo called doubt the father of invention. Dante said, "Doubting charms me not less than knowledge." Stanislous said, "To believe with certainly we must begin with doubting." Albert Guerod said, "Systems which end doubt are devices for drugging thought." H. L. Menchen wrote, "Men became civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in proportion to their readiness to doubt."
Doubt is a conformation of faith, for it is an indication of the seriousness and value of faith to the doubter. I do not doubt information I receive about the life of turtles on Pacific Islands. I do not doubt what I am told about butterflies in Porto Rico. These and millions of other bits of information are not relevant to my life, and not important enough to doubt. But I do doubt in areas of vital importance to me. The nurse who works with aids patience has to doubt that she is safe from the disease, and take precautions, for her life is at stake. It is healthy to be skeptical in such a context.
If I am being offered a $300 dollar watch for $20 dollars, I have an obligation to be doubtful. If I have faith in all I am told, I will be a prime target for the con man. Doubt and skepticism are part of the armor that protects us from much folly. In the realm of religious truth we must be skeptical, and doubt much of what we read and hear. The Bereans were more noble than those in Thessalonika because they searched the Scripture to see if what Paul taught was so. They doubted the Apostle Paul, and none were condemned for this doubting. In fact, they were commended, for they took truth seriously enough to check it out. Some have called this the Protestant Principle: The critical element that says, we do not take pronouncements from anybody as authorities until they can be established to be Biblical, and thus reflect the mind of God. Only doubters can make this principle work.
We must always remember the sunny side of doubt, for doubt is not just aimed at the truth, but can also be aimed at the false, and it is a virtue to doubt the false. It is a virtue to doubt Satan and his lies that say wickedness leads to happiness. It is a virtue to doubt that the world, flesh, and devil have valid answers. Thank God for doubt, for it is the other side of faith that makes faith strong. The sunny side of doubt is the doubt that death ends all, and the doubt that Jesus would lie to us, and not really prepare a place for us to be with Him forever. The more you get into the sunny side of doubt, the more doubt becomes an exciting virtue. To believe in anything positive, you have to not believe in its opposite. If I have faith in Christ, I must doubt the ways of anti-Christ. All faith is backed up by doubt in its opposite.
Before Columbus launched out into the deep to prove the world is round, he had to doubt the old theory that it was flat. The sinner who responds to the Gospel in faith must doubt that he can save himself, or that there is any other way to be forgiven of his sin. The point of all this is, do not let doubt be your enemy, but make it your friend. Jesus understood John's doubt, and he will understand yours. Come to Christ, as John did, and seek for answers to the mysteries that puzzle you and provoke doubt. It can be painful, but the end result will be the pleasure of a deeper faith. Don't let doubt drag you into darkness as it did the Pharisees, but let it drive you to the light like it did John.
The idea of doubt being demanded has to be seen in the context of an intellectual struggle to acquire insight into truth. It does not fit a situation where the issue is trust, or not trust. When Peter walked on the water, and then because of his fear lost faith, and began to sink, Jesus saved him and asked, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" The implication is that Peter's doubt was of no value whatever, for it was a sheer loss of faith. He cease to trust Christ, and relied on his own senses. This is not the damnable doubting of the Pharisees, but it is a dangerous doubting none the less. It is doubt which has made a decision to side with unbelief, and when doubt sides with unbelief, it is unbelief. Peter ceased to trust Christ and he sank. Job doubted his friends theology, and he even doubted God's justice and loving care, but he never cease to trust God. Job's doubt was good, for it did not plunge him into unbelief. Doubt will not hurt us as long as we always put our trust in Christ. Someone wrote this poem that sums it up-
"I will not doubt, though all my ships at sea
Come drifting home with broken masts and sails.
I shall believe the hand that never fails
From seeming evil worketh good for me,
And though I weep because those sails are tattered,
Still will I cry, while my best hopes are shattered,
I trust in thee."