What is doubt?
Over the next few days, we're going to take a look at something that affects many Christians, but we don't often like to talk about it. It's doubt.
So what is doubt? At one level, it might seem silly to ask what doubt is. We see it all around us – people aren’t sure what’s true, aren’t sure if there is a God. And if we are honest, a lot of us feel it too – some of us more than others, but lots of us do. Many of us know people who have doubted so much that they have walked away from faith in Jesus. There are famous people who have done that, and there might be people very close to us – maybe even some of you who are reading this now.
But seeing as there is so much doubt, it seems worth thinking a bit about it - what it is, why it happens, and whether we can do anything about it. So for a start, let’s try to get a handle on what doubt actually is.
Doubters in the Bible
It might surprise you to hear, but actually the Bible has quite a lot to say about doubt. There are some pretty serious doubters in the Bible, and looking at them helps us understand what doubt is. Here are a few of them:
Job is a really good guy who loves God a lot, but he goes through some crazy suffering – he loses almost everything he has, including his children, and then gets a serious skin disease to top it all off. As we read his story, we know that his suffering came upon him ‘without any reason’ (Job 2:3). Job himself is pretty sure that he is blameless – in other words, when it comes to this suffering, he hadn’t done anything to particularly deserve it. But he still suffers, a lot! Job’s experience of suffering contradicts what he knows about God – he knows God is fair and good, but his experience doesn’t seem to fit with God being fair and good. So he starts doubting.
The Teacher of Ecclesiastes suffers a different kind of doubt. His looks around at what happens in the world, and he sees the righteous perish but the wicked live long (Ecclesiastes 7:15). He knows God is in control of everything, yet the righteous and the sinner, the wise and the fool – well they all end up dying (Ecclesiastes 9:1-3). All this contradicts what he expects the world to be like if God is good. So he doubts whether there is really any meaning at all in life ‘under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3; 12:8).
The New Testament’s most prominent doubters are Jesus’ disciples. At one point, they see Jesus after he’s been raised from the dead, and they thought he might be a ghost. Doubts arose in their minds (Luke 24:37-38). Like us, they weren’t used to seeing dead men alive again. Their experience of Jesus at this point contradicted what they thought happened in the world. This caused them to doubt what they were seeing.
Doubt is about contradiction
The common denominator with all these doubters is that they experience contradiction (i.e. when what you experience is different to what you expected). So we could sum up what doubt is something like this:
Doubt is the upsetting uncertainty which comes on us when we experience things that contradict our understanding of God and his world.
Sometimes this might happen because something we believe about God or the world is just plain wrong – our doubts might be pointing us to the fact that we need to change what we think. But sometimes we might doubt even things that are true, because they in some way contradict what we expect – like Jesus’ disciples did. More about that in our next instalment…