(An encouraging perspective on doubt)
Where in the Bible would you look to find a list of doubters? Surprise! Surprise! It’s in the so-called ‘Faith Chapter’! (Hebrews 11) But at least half of the ‘heroes of faith’ mentioned in that chapter had periods of disbelief, fear, and doubt in their lives. They weren’t alone. Other prominent biblical characters who we honour for their faith, were also prone to doubt.
- Abraham lied because he didn’t trust God to protect him
- Mighty Moses was too scared to obey the voice from the burning bush
- Gideon pleaded for three miracles before he would obey the Lord’s calling
- Elijah was so frightened that he was ready to ‘throw in the towel’ and abandon his ministry
- Sarah laughed when she heard God’s promise
- Peter denied three times that he knew Jesus
- And then, there was Doubting Thomas
Doubting Thomas – what a nickname for a Christian leader to bear! Thomas was absent when Jesus made his first resurrection appearance to the disciples, so he doubted their story. Later, Jesus appeared again and confronted Thomas with the truth. Would you have made that mistake? I have news for you. Thomas’s doubts were logical and understandable. He knew, as everyone does, that death is the end of life. But, after Jesus met him face-to-face, Thomas believed utterly in the resurrection.
The Bible mentions Thomas just once more, when the book of Acts includes him in a list of 11 surviving apostles. Thereafter he disappears from the story. But there is plausible evidence that Thomas evangelised Southern India, where medieval Portuguese travellers found a pre-existing Christian community claiming to have been founded by Thomas. Thomas was brave to preach the new religion beyond the protection of Roman law and justice. If he took such risks for the Gospel, he should no longer be remembered as a doubter.
These men went through periods of doubt, but we call them heroes of faith because they acted in faith after doubting. It’s not how they started, but how they finished. They faced the tough questions and came the verge of ‘losing their faith’. But the key outcome for each of them is that they obeyed God. Two of them, Moses and Elijah, made a surprise appearance in the New Testament story of The Transfiguration. They knew the extremities of doubt and fear, so were well qualified to support Jesus as he contemplated the suffering he would soon face. People who recover from an infection develop immunity. When they meet the same illness again, they are unharmed, so they can safely mix with other sufferers. In the same way, those whose faith has been tested are strengthened by their experience. When you need comfort, seek out someone who has felt the pain.
People assume that heroes don’t feel fear. They are wrong. Brave people feel the fear but act in spite of it. Those who have no sense of fear are not brave, but naive. People of faith experience doubt, but act in faith. It’s not the way we feel that counts, but the decisions we make. Doubt takes you down to the depths, where you discover your foundations and find that they are strong. When Moses and Elijah reached rock bottom, they expressed their anguish to God – in other words, they were still praying. Though Peter was in the depths of despair, he still kept his appointment to meet Jesus in Galilee. Gideon did venture out to fight God’s battle. On meeting the Saviour he had doubted, Thomas cried out, “My Lord and my God!” Each of them, when they fell to their lowest point, found solid ground.
I have had setbacks that led me to despair. I have been cheated in business, disappointed in ambition, and ashamed by my own foolishness. I have been beaten up and robbed. I have been rejected by people who I loved and trusted. And I have encountered intellectual doubts. But, however hard the trial, each time I discovered that I could only fall so far and no further. The only way was up. At the lowest point, I found that I was still trusting in Jesus and addressing my complaints towards him. “Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken” (Psalm 55:22 NIV)
Great men and women of God experience doubts, so there’s no need for us to feel condemned, or lose heart, when doubts plague our minds. Faith that has never been tested by doubt is weak and unrefined. Doubt is the fire that tests faith and proves that it’s genuine. Though questions arise, your true belief is demonstrated by the way you live your life. Doubt isn’t exactly a good thing, and neither is misfortune, and we hope to avoid both. But life consists of ups and downs. The challenge is not to avoid them. You can’t. The challenge is to ride them well – and keep talking to God.
“No test or temptation that comes your way is beyond the course of what others have had to face. All you need to remember is that God will never let you down; he’ll never let you be pushed past your limit; he’ll always be there to help you come through it.” (I Corinthians 10:13 The Message)