by Linda Troxell
The voice of doubt is curious; if we are honest, it’s something we all hear. But from where do the doubts come? And whose voice is that taunting us? The reasons we doubt are as many and varied as Christians themselves. But a large portion of them come straight from the enemy. As he has done for millennia, he invades our minds, turning our thoughts into doubts.
Of course, all doubts don’t come from the enemy. But, all the taunts about our doubts do. It may sound like the voice of our mom, dad, or our first Sunday School teacher, but no matter the words he uses or the voice he hijacks, it’s still our mortal enemy taunting us. He is a practiced and worthy adversary who has been introducing doubt since He first led Eve to doubt what she heard God say in the garden.
You would think it wouldn’t be difficult to dispel doubt in the Christian world. Since the Bible is the Word of God, it seems it should be the best way to resolve doubts about God or biblical things. Unfortunately, some people have difficulty trusting the Bible because they believe it has done more harm than good. I can’t dispute that the Bible has been used to cause serious injury. However, I will dispute that it has ever done so when used as God intended.
The Bible is meant to give wisdom, comfort, and support. But it has often been used or misused to frighten, undermine, and assert power over others. What the Bible says about doubt and faith has frequently been twisted to instill fear and manipulate whole congregations. This manipulation is the kind of thing that gives Christianity a bad name and erodes trust in the Bible. Let’s look at an example.
The following verses have often been twisted and used to cause some Christians to suffer from shame and guilt, both of which are very corrosive.
“But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.” James 1:6-8.
Using this passage out of context easily leads those who have doubts, i.e., all of us, to believe that we can’t expect God to answer our prayers because of our doubts. But if we read the passage carefully, we find it doesn’t say that.
In verse 6, James tells us that we who have doubts are “like a wave on the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” in other words, we are wavering back and forth between belief and unbelief; we are chaotic and unsettled. Then, in verse 7, he tells us that this wavering, agitated person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.
We are often told these verses mean God punishes our doubts by not answering our prayers. However, in reality, it’s telling us that when doubt causes us to be double-minded, having one foot in belief and the other in doubt, we are unable to receive anything from God. (emphasis mine)
This distinction is crucial as it dispels the false contention that God punishes us, in this case, for our doubts, by not answering our prayers. This contention cannot be true because God doesn’t punish, He may discipline, but He doesn’t punish. Using the fear of punishment to make people love God has never worked and never will.
In these verses, James is not saying God won’t answer our prayers when we have doubts. He’s saying that when we have one foot in our belief and one foot in our doubt, our prayers are unfocused and our emotional state is not conducive to recognizing God’s voice or believing He desires to answer our prayers. In this position, we need first to pray for God to help us to settle our thoughts and feelings and center ourselves in the safety of His love. With His help, we will settle down and we can pray and receive Him effectively.
You may ask why I think my interpretation of these verses is correct and the other’s incorrect. I hope many of you have asked that question. Because this is just the kind of doubt, we all should have. How do we know what we’re told is true? I have a tip that I hope will be helpful for you in discerning the meanings of the unclear verses in the future.
When we are trying to discern the meaning of verses such as the ones we have just discussed, passages in which the author’s intention is less than explicit and there is more than one way to interpret the meaning, it can be confusing. But less so if we remember this simple rule: always choose the meaning most reflective of God’s nature. That’s it. It will never fail because God’s behavior is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow; He never changes and never goes against His nature.
In the verses above, I know my understanding is correct because it is in keeping with God’s loving nature, while the other interpretation portrays God as petty, spiteful, and punishing. If we know nothing else about God, we know He is love and will never behave in an unloving way.
Whoever does not love does not know God because God is love. 1 John 4:8.
The incorrect interpretation could lead people to believe that their unanswered prayer is their fault. That if not for their doubt, they would have the job they’ve always wanted, or their marriage would not have failed. Or even worse, they might believe that someone they love would be alive today if they had no doubts. Can you imagine the weight of feeling that because of your doubts, a prayer to save the life of someone you love was unanswered by God? That could easily happen as a result of misinterpreting scripture.
Of course, not all misinterpretations are nefarious. It could be that someone is only repeating what they were told. But that doesn’t change the fact that many Christians live in shame because they believe God has punished them for having doubts.
This illustration is only one example of how scripture can be twisted to confuse us. The confusion may be part of an agenda, or it could be simple ignorance. Sadly, many Christians know nothing more about the Bible than that which they hear in church. However, it does not serve us to overlook that scripture is often twisted to manipulate and gain power.
The critical takeaway here is that the Bible does not cause harm. Some untrustworthy people use the Bible in harmful ways, but that doesn’t make the Bible harmful or untrustworthy. And, although it may go without saying I have to say it anyway: those who cannot be trusted to tell us the truth about the Bible, should not be trusted at all.
Make no mistake, none of us is innocent in all of this. Those who hold themselves out as teachers of the Bible are indeed held to a higher standard of trust, Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. James 3:1 However, we are all responsible for knowing what’s in the Bible. We cannot just sit back and have it spoonfed to us and expect to have no responsibility for the harm it might cause. At the very least, we need to know the character of God well enough to know when an interpretation is unreliable.
Doubt has a negative connotation, but it can be useful as a tool in our journey to understand the Bible. We meet many doubters in the pages of the Bible. The most familiar, of course, is Thomas. Doubting is what he is famous for. He wouldn’t believe that Jesus rose from the grave unless he saw the marks of the nails on His hands. When the other disciples told him they had seen Jesus, he replied, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” John 20:25
And now, until the end of time, anyone who is in doubt of anything is dubbed a “Doubting Thomas.” But were his doubts unreasonable? We may be tempted to think they were because Jesus told the disciples many times of His death and resurrection. The Bible recorded 21 times when Jesus mentioned His resurrection to the disciples. And those are only the ones that made it into the book.
But the truth is that when Jesus told them about His death and resurrection, none of the disciples comprehended what He was telling them. Many passages in the gospels attest to this, but we need to look no further than the crucifixion itself. If the disciples had understood Jesus, they would not have been so devastated by His death; they would have expected it and understood He was coming back in three days. But save for Jesus’ resurrection of Lazurus, a miracle they had not yet fully digested, resurrection was a concept too wild for their comprehension.
Jesus so often spoke in parables, it’s no wonder the disciples just couldn’t understand what He was telling them about His death.
We’ve heard of the resurrection a million times and fully comprehend the concept. But think about it seriously; what would be your response if your closest friends told you that someone you knew to be dead had just stopped by and they had lunch together? Maybe you think that if you had seen that person perform all the miracles Jesus had, your faith would be rock solid. Well, the doubt of the disciples tells a different story. Thomas got the spotlight, but none of them was unshakable.
Jesus said to Thomas, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20:26. The Bible doesn’t tell us who Jesus refers to as those who “have not seen and yet believed.” I think most of us assume it is the other disciples. But surely, He wasn’t referring to John and Peter.
When Mary told those two the tomb was empty, wasn’t their response similar to Thomas’? Didn’t the disciple that Jesus loved and Peter have a foot race to the tomb to see for themselves? So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. John 20:3-4
Doubts are a natural part of believing. Paul Tillich wrote, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” The Bible is full of God’s people who struggled with doubt. Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, David, Elija. Even Jesus had doubts when He prayed in Gethsemane. He went a little farther, and falling on His face, He prayed, “O My Father if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me. Nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” Matthew 26:39
Faith does not rely on observable facts; it goes beyond what we see. Faith operates inwardly, but it is more than feelings, as well. Faith is a decision to believe in God even when we cannot see God at work in our lives. It’s a decision to trust Him even when it seems He is working against what we need in our lives. Faith is a decision to trust in God despite the doubts that argue against it. It is trusting in the light even amid the darkness. Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1
But decisions sometimes take time, and faith is not all-or-nothing. Faith is like a muscle, we must use it, or it will atrophy. Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it’s more like a training partner that strengthens faith, keeping it on track. Faith can diminish doubt by reminding us how often God has come through for us. In turn, doubts help to exercise our faith, making it stronger.
There is no reason to panic when we feel threatened by our doubts. Remember, doubts are a natural element of faith. It does not lead to an erosion of our faith as some fear. More often than not, when our doubts lead us to panic, it is because we are fearful about what they say about the strength of our faith, so we ignore them. And they grow.
Pretty soon, our old adversary, the enemy, takes advantage of our fear and exacerbates it to the level of panic. Our refusal to pray about our doubts gave him the ammunition to create our panic. And he is betting that our refusal to pray will continue to allow him free reign in our minds, which he considers his playground. That’s why the first thing we must do when our doubts begin to multiply is the one thing we are most prone to overlook in our problem-solving; we need to pray.
We often forget to go to God until nothing else has worked. We’ve all heard someone say, perhaps we have said it ourselves, “there was nothing left to do but pray.” Why do we so often relegate prayer to last resort behavior? Prayer should always be the first thing we do. But it is often the last thing of which we think. No matter the circumstances, rule number one is to pray, and rule number two is to pray again.
Having doubts is never a problem unless we make it one. It’s common for people to believe that doubt leads to an erosion of our faith, eventually leading us away from the church altogether. I think anyone led out of the church by doubts was looking for doubts to lead them out of the church.
More often, we are afraid to admit that we have doubts, afraid to tell God about things we consider to be wrong, like having doubt. Of course, that’s crazy for so many reasons, but mostly because we know God knows things about us we don’t even know about ourselves. Panic will only serve to get in the way of prayer. Eventually, not speaking to God will become a habit, and our prayer life will die a slow, silent death.
Instead of panicking, we just need to sit down and talk to God. Tell Him about our doubt and ask Him to help us get beyond it. We can tell him if we’re afraid, frustrated, or plain old angry. He is there for just this kind of thing; it’s His job. Let Him do it.
Lord, you know that we all have doubts about our faith at some time or another, and You know it is a natural part of our faith. We live in a crazy world, and we have information thrown at us in so many ways all day long, every day. It isn’t always easy to keep our focus on You, Your Kingdom, and Your truth. But, Lord, that is just what we are striving to do. We ask You to help us not allow the doubts that come from the outside world or our imagination to distract us from Your Kingdom. We thank you, Lord, that You always stay by our side and that we can always turn to You for help when our doubt begins to overwhelm us. But we also understand that we must pray and ask for Your help. And we can only do that if we are not afraid of having doubts. You, Lord, are the only reliable source of truth and comfort we can trust. Help us to remember that amid our panic, Lord. We are so grateful for Your patience and Your unconditional love. We are lost when we allow our fear of not being “good enough” to keep us from praying and talking to You. Please help us to remember that You love us no matter what. We know that our faith is a muscle we need to exercise to make it bigger and more resilient. So, we must remember that doubts are a part of that process. Lord, when we are overwhelmed with doubts, help us to remember that You will never turn your back on us no matter what we do because Your love is unconditional. We thank You for that, Lord, and we thank You for all the grace and blessings You give us every day. We submit to Your will now and always as we pray for Your will to be manifested on earth as it is in heaven. All of this we pray in the mighty name of Jesus. Amen!
Linda Troxell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who lives in a small town in Southern California where she writes devotionals and poetry to post on her personal blog. For over twenty years, she worked to help men and women struggling with substance abuse and adolescent boys in group homes struggling with family difficulties. She is now retired and spends most of her time doing what she loves best, writing about the Lord, and spending time with her grandchildren.