Doubt in the Bible

We all face many doubts in our lives. Doubt can be paralyzing, cause flip-flopping, or even full-fledged retreat. Doubts about our faith or our relationship with God can be especially damaging.

“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

These verses from James seem to confirm our feelings about the shame and disqualifying nature of doubt. Often when we doubt an aspect of our faith or walk with Christ, the doubt itself leads to more doubts about our standing with God. We ask ourselves, “If I were really a Christian would I be questioning this? If I am saved would I really feel this way?”

However, it is important to look at the passage in James as a whole as well as what is taught throughout the rest scripture.

For starters, verses 2-5 in the passage from James are important to remember,

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”

Trials and tribulations often lead to doubt. We ask ourselves if we are truly following Christ, would we be facing these same situations? Oftentimes the answer is ‘yes’ and that we are facing them–at least partly–for the purpose of maturing in our faith. We can take encouragement from this, even going so far as considering it “pure joy”, which only makes sense in the context of a gospel transformed life.

We should also recognize that verse 5 is giving us specific instructions for what to do if we lack wisdom. That we are to ask God and believe that He will give it. So the doubt being addressed in verses 6-8 is that of doubting God’s promise to give us His wisdom when we ask for it. It is doubting God’s Word and His character for He “gives generously to all without finding fault.”

Many times when I am praying for guidance in a particular situation I start to think, “If I only followed God more faithfully, if I was just a little better Christian, then I would know what God wants me to do.” While it is true that the more faithfully we walk with Christ the more experienced we become in hearing His voice, it is a lie to think that He won’t give us His wisdom if we haven’t been as good a Christian as we think we ought. We don’t earn God’s leading or direction. We are simply instructed to ask, encouraged by the knowledge that God gives it generously and isn’t looking for reasons to withhold it.

As for how doubt is handled in the larger context of scripture, we have many examples from the characters in the Bible. Contrary to what we may believe, doubt does not immediately disqualify us from God’s will for our lives. God does not look down on us and say “Well, I had a great plan for you, but you doubted so that’s out. Are you sure you’re even my child?” In fact, scripture shows us that He does the exact opposite.

A few brief examples:

In Genesis, Abraham–the father of faith–and Sarah doubt that they will have a natural child. First Abraham laughs at the idea of having a son in Genesis 17 and points to Ishmael. Then in chapter 18 Sarah laughs at the idea as well. Both times the Lord reconfirmed His promise and then ultimately follows through by giving them Isaac.

Exodus chapters 3-4, God appears to Moses in the burning bush to give him the task of being used by God to save His people from Egypt and slavery. Moses questions God’s choosing of him five times. God meets Moses’s doubts by telling him what will happen in the future–in essence guaranteeing his success–giving Moses a miraculous signs to perform, and in the end giving Moses a partner in his brother Aaron.

Moses is considered one of the great heroes of the faith and God uses him to save His people. Yet here he is, standing before a burning bush that is not being consumed speaking audibly with God and doubting God’s plan and choice. The fifth time Moses directly asks God,

“Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.” – Exodus 4:13

This is after God has shown Moses miracles and guaranteed his success. Moses’s doubt–which was probably influenced by his reason for leaving Egypt (Exodus 2)–remained and was strong enough to motivate him to quit making excuses and directly ask God to pick someone else.

“Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses and he said, ‘What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and he will be glad to see you. You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do.  He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him.” – Exodus 4:14-16

There is much more that could be said about this story, but notice that Aaron “is already on his way”. God knew how this conversation was going to play out. He knew what Moses’s doubts would be and what Moses needed and he was in the process of meeting those doubts before Moses even knew that he had them. That doesn’t mean we can bend God to our will or dictate terms to Him, but it is helpful to recognize that our doubts are not a surprise to God and He is at work well before we are aware.

In Judges, Gideon is appointed to be used to lead Israel in a great victory over their enemies. Throughout his doubts and questions the Lord reconfirms His promise and then works two miracles with the fleece to strengthen Gideon’s faith. (Judges 6-7)

Luke 1:5-23, an angel appears to Zechariah–the eventual father of John the Baptist–while he is ministering in the temple before the Lord. The angel tells Zechariah that in spite of he and his wife’s old age, they will have a son. Zechariah doubts so the angel tells him that as a sign Zechariah won’t be able to speak until John is born. While it could be seen as something of a punishment–or at least an inconvenience–it is a miracle that works to show others Zechariah has had an encounter with God as well as to prove the power of God to Zechariah in a personal way. Despite his doubt, God still uses Zechariah to be the father of the one who would prepare the way for His own son. Clearly Zechariah’s lack of faith did not disqualify him from his role in God’s plan.

John the Baptist himself had a moment of doubt. His bout came after seeing the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus in the form of a dove and hearing God’s audible voice from heaven proclaim Jesus as His son “whom I love, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3). John had been arrested and while waiting in prison he sent a few of his disciples to ask Jesus if he really was the Messiah or if should they wait for someone else. Jesus answered,

 “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” – Luke 7:22-23

Jesus didn’t respond by saying “Doesn’t he remember the baptism? Didn’t he hear the voice of God? What more does he need?” No, Jesus responded by telling John what he was currently doing. He showed God’s hand currently at work affirming who Christ was and what He had come to do. (Luke 7:18-23)

The story of Jesus walking on water and Peter briefly joining Him is well-known. I will just quickly point out that Jesus is ready to reach out and grab Peter the very moment he starts to doubt and sink. Peter yells, “Lord save me!” and “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.” Jesus didn’t punish him for his doubt by letting him tread water and fight to stay afloat on his own. He doesn’t let Peter swallow some water before picking him out of the stormy water. He reaches in and grabs Peter at once. Not only does Jesus save Peter and bring him into the boat, but when Jesus steps into the boat the wind dies down and the reason for Peter’s doubt in the first place is taken away. (Matt. 14:22-36)

After the resurrection of Jesus, all of the disciples have seen Him except for Thomas. When they tell him that they have “seen the Lord!” he responds by saying “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Thomas is firm in his doubt. Even though he has a roomful of people telling him the truth, he still doubts.

In many of the examples I have highlighted so far, God’s response to doubt has been at least partly immediate. In the case of Thomas, he had the testimony of those who had seen Jesus, but a week went by before God did anything further.

Then,

“Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’

Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’

 Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ – John 20:26-29

Jesus doesn’t leave Thomas in his doubt. He physically shows up and puts his doubt to rest. He reveals himself to Thomas.

God knows the size and condition of our faith. He knows our doubts. He “knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:14) Throughout Christ’s time on earth he met people where they were at. In the case of the centurion, all Jesus had to do was speak the words (Matt. 8), the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years felt that she needed to simply touch His cloak, and Jairus needed Jesus’s encouragement that all was not lost when they received news of his daughter’s death on the way (Luke 9). In each of these cases the result–miraculous healing–is the same, but the method is different. 

In the middle of an exhortation to believers in the early church, Jude says,

“Be merciful to those who doubt;” – Jude 1:22

God is merciful to those that doubt and calls us to do likewise to others. When we are faced with our own doubts our response should be that of the distressed father begging Jesus to heal his son,

“I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” – Mark 9:24

God is big enough for our doubts and will meet us where we are at. Maybe not in the way we expect, but because of His mercy and for His glory He will reveal Himself.

And when God does intervene in our moments and seasons of doubt–because He will–the correct response is to worship and follow Him.