Have you ever seen those medieval pictures of devils whispering into the ears of the faithful? What do you suppose they were saying? Allegedly, they were planting doubts in the minds of their victims. Doubting and believing were defined in simple terms at those times. Beliefs were dictated by commandment, and doubting meant dissent of any kind from the dogma of the Church. Never mind that some of that dogma wasn’t entirely scriptural! The Reformation punched holes in some of those certainties, and a major force behind the Reformation was the widespread availability of the printed word. Printing made information cheap.
Information is many times more widespread in the modern world. The multiplicity of information sources spreads doubts far more rapidly than legions of those little devils! But, to the medieval world, doubts were defined by commandment. People were told what to believe about everything. The 21st century world doesn’t work like that. Information is fed to us from all directions and we have to make individual choices between truth and misinformation.
Don’t be afraid of doubt. OK, it may feel like a threat, but you can also treat it as a tool to help you dig down to the solid ground of your real faith. I’m avoiding the adjective “true”, because it’s so often used in a negative way. “True Faith” (note the capitals) implies a set of beliefs that we have and they don’t. My real faith consists of the things I believe deep down, and those beliefs have been tested again and again – by doubt. We need to know that our faith is authentic and deep rooted. A 14th century English writer told the following story to illustrate real faith:
“A hound that only runs after the hare because he sees other hounds run rests when he is tired or returns home. But if he runs because he sees the hare, he will not stop until he has caught it, tired though he may be.” [i]
Let’s not have second-hand faith. Let’s have real faith that changes the way we behave. I’ve been challenged on this many times – to my benefit:
At the age of 17, I was blessed with the experience that many call “the baptism of the Holy Spirit” and, yes, I did “speak in tongues”. I was young in the faith and rightly respected my teachers and leaders. However, those same leaders did not believe in the blessing I’d experienced, and they took the opportunity of a “Young People’s Weekend” to take me aside and persuade me to deny my experience. They led me to doubt. That Weekend was held in a southern coastal resort, and we were back in the same place six months later. During afternoon “free time” I went for a walk in the surrounding countryside. The weather was glorious, and my heart spontaneously rose up in worship to my Creator. It felt wonderful – but my worship came out in “tongues” (the blessing I’d been persuaded to deny!) However, this time there was neither denial nor doubt. It wasn’t a fleeting experience with a bit of doctrine tagged on. It was a deep, heartfelt engagement with my heavenly Father. I had seen the hare!
In California there’s a coastal town called Morro Rock and, as you look out from the shore you can see why. The Rock is massive, and dominates the harbour. Waking up there in my motel room one morning, I reached for my Bible and read from the book of Revelation. My early Bible training included particular teachings about Revelation but, that morning, I realised that those teachings didn’t fit with what I was reading. I began to doubt what I’d been taught. Disturbed by my doubt, I went for a walk along the spit of land leading out to the Rock, which was then hidden in the morning mist. As I walked, my mind was anxiously churning over those thoughts. Then, as the mist lifted and the Rock appeared out of the gloom, I cried out, “Lord, I don’t believe that stuff anymore!” and a voice in my head said, “What matters is not your intellectual ideas, but the way that you live. Are you living as if you expect Christ to return?” I recognised that voice. It’s a voice that’s often brought me comfort. My doubts turned from fanciful teachings about God to a deeper trust and love for the Saviour himsel
From time to tine many smaller doubts enter our heads (yes, including mine, as a believer for more than 60 years). I have doubts – and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Most of them are incidentals – moments of uncertainty. A Bible passage that offends my sense of justice. A prayer that was less a prayer of faith than a weak expression of hope. Why can’t I have more faith? Because a little faith is enough to produce huge effects. But the most disabling doubts are doubts about myself. Have I got what it takes to obey God’s calling and to last the course? Many saints have faced that challenge.
Moses and Elijah stand out prominently among the prophets of the Old Testament, but each of them faced a crisis where they almost threw in the towel and abandoned their calling. I believe that was why they were chosen to meet Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. In the first couple of years of his ministry he drew ever increasing crowds and was widely admired as a prophet. But there came a day when one of his disciples declared “You are the Messiah!” and, at that point, Jesus knew that the game had changed. He knew that, to fulfil his mission, he must suffer. He had a human body and would suffer as a human – could he go through with it? Helped by those two men who knew the agony of doubt, Jesus decided to continue his journey towards the cross.
Doubt is the sand grain that creates the pearl. It is the grinder that shapes the gem, and the abrasive that polishes its facets. Doubt forces us to face the truth about ourselves and to discover the depths of our faith. Don’t run away from doubt, but face it with courage. The incredible truth that many heroes of faith have discovered is that the weakness they think disqualifies them is God’s opportunity to become their strength. As the Lord said to St Paul, “My strength is made perfect in weakness”[i]. When we have passed through doubt, we find the strength to take up the cross and follow Jesus [ii].
©Derrick Phillips 2022
[i] Walter Hilton, “The Ladder of Perfection”, Book 1, Chapter 41.
[ii] 2 Corinthians 12:9 (KJV)