G. K. Chesterton has remarked that “materialists and madmen never have doubts.” Could an authentic mark of a believer be his ability to doubt honestly?

Not according to the rather determined opinion of one person in a Bible study I attended. He declared: “Doubt is sin!”

I wonder how many share that second view, if only as a private, unexamined notion. This can make a Christian so timid that he may cling only to the edge of faith, hesitant to examine it too closely for fear he will lose it altogether.

Do we promote this hesitancy by discouraging anything less than continuous certainty? Faith is not promoted by intellectual innocence. Yet obviously the church aims to be a community of faith, not a collection of doubters. Doubt can no more be the intention of the church than cutting away tissue is the real aim of surgery. But just as surgery requires that there be a precise kind of injury in order to promote healing, the church can aim to help its people work through their doubts in order to generate a stronger faith.

To do this, however, requires a discriminate view of doubt. Doubt is not necessarily constructive. But the biblical expression of doubt is simply an honest admission that things do not always seem to fit, that for all the answers we have, rather significant questions are still outstanding.

Growth Can Rise From Doubt: Jeremiah

Jeremiah is a fair example. Here we have a great man of faith doubting God’s leadership: “O Lord, you have deceived me, and I am deceived; You are stronger than I, so you have won. So here I am: everyone laughs at me.”

If anyone had reason to doubt, Jeremiah did. He spent the energies of his youth in the cause of Josiah’s reform. Its success was spectacular—but fleeting. In a moment Josiah was killed in battle, the reform was lost, the enemy was at the gates. And the temple, which had been the subject of that great reform, would soon be destroyed. Why bother to work for reform at all? How could one have understood these matters to be the Lord’s will, when all that is left is a strange desolation?

It was only by going through such periods of doubt that Jeremiah could begin to see that God’s will transcended even Josiah’s reform. He was not wrong in thinking that God would be honored in a reformed temple worship. But he had to learn to doubt his earlier preoccupation with the temple in order to see beyond it to that time when the ark, that central relic of the temple, shall not “come to mind, neither shall they remember it, neither shall they miss it” (Jer. 3:16). For now God’s law will be present in a new covenant, one that is not written on stone but entered on the human heart (Jer. 31:33).

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Without his doubts, Jeremiah could have been content with temple reform. And without his doubts that led him to a greater faith, he could have been left altogether without faith, and he could have been cynical when the whole reform came to nothing with the enslavement of the nation and the destruction of the temple. Instead, his constant seeking for a larger and grander vision from God—his dissatisfaction with an earlier inadequate understanding—led him to a faith that could not be assailed even when the populace was taken captive by Babylon.

Presumptuous Doubt

This honest doubt, a “doubting unto faith,” must be carefully distinguished from two other forms. The first is presumptuous doubt. It becomes the natural companion to egotism.

Both T. S. Eliot and Friedrich Nietzsche were impressed by the doubts of Blaise Pascal—but in altogether different ways. T. S. Eliot saw Pascal as a man of great faith and formidable doubts. But, for Eliot, the doubts were a component of his great faith:

“And Pascal, as the type of one kind of religious believer, which is highly passionate and ardent, but passionate only through a powerful and regulated intellect, is in the first sections of his unfinished Apology for Christianity facing unflinchingly the demon of doubt which is inseparable from the spirit of faith.”

In contrast, Nietzsche holds nothing but scorn for the way Pascal expresses his doubt. “The most deplorable example [of Christianity’s opposition to the ‘higher type’ of man]: the depraving of Pascal, who believed his reason had been depraved by original sin while it had only been depraved by his Christianity!”

Eliot, as a believer, saw Pascal’s modest distrust of reason to be the necessary prelude to a real search for truth. Nietzsche, on the other hand, saw that same tendency as intellectual cowardice. The distinction between Eliot and Pascal on the one hand, and Nietzsche on the other, points up an important difference between the doubt I am calling “doubt unto faith,” and “presumptuous doubt, the doubt of pride.” In the first instance, Pascal doubted himself and recognized his limits. This caused him to cast about in disbelief concerning the God-ordered creation, and even God himself. Eliot noted that for this reason some think Pascal was an unbeliever. But the point is that he seldom loses perspective because he always keeps in view his own limitations. Most of all he recognizes the limitation imposed by a human will and intellect distorted by original sin.

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Nietzsche, on the other hand, presumes to throw off all limitations. His doubt is cast outward upon the world, God, and the Christian faith. He doubts all things except the romanticized human will, the enlarged ego. For Pascal, both doubt and knowledge have balance, moderation. The apparent energy in Nietzsche’s writing is achieved by an intentional imbalance, and a deliberate effort to assert his will against all moderating considerations.

If his expression is skillful, disciplined, and under artistic control, it is nevertheless like a controlled madness. “What is good?—All that heightens the feeling of power, the will of power, power itself in man.” There is no regard for decent limits, for civilizing restraints—either in language or in life. In the end it means there is no regard for truth. Doubt is not honest questioning; it is a device for asserting one’s will.

For Nietzsche doubt is no problem: he parades his doubts, he congratulates himself for them. “One must be honest in intellectual matters to the point of harshness,” he said in his introduction to The Anti-Christ, “to so much as endure my seriousness, my passion.” He exults in the fact that he has not been made as these other poor souls—gullible and believing. (“One must be superior to mankind in force, in loftiness of soul—in contempt.…”) The presumptuous doubter has answered the questions even before they are asked. Doubt is a defense, a barricade: it blocks the way to further inquiry.

Doubt Born Of Fear

Another type of doubt bears a similarity to the “doubt of pride,” in spite of appearing superficially to be its precise opposite. It is a doubt that disguises itself as faith.

A student once told me that her pastor, who knew only that she was taking a course in Bible at a state university, advised her, “Don’t listen to a thing that professor has to say.” Another student confessed to me once that she hesitated to take biblical studies for fear of the doubts such a study would provoke. This may disclose a common fear that one’s faith actually will not stand the test of close examination. Faith turns out to be not faith at all, but a very profound and subtle kind of doubt. The doubt arising from fear, ironically, is the fear of doubt.

The doubt born of fear, like the “doubt of pride” arms itself against questions. Either of these forms can mislead us into believing that doubt is always the enemy of faith. Biblical examples of “doubting unto faith” have convinced me that such is not the case.

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It is not only in certainty that a person grows toward a stronger trust in God. Where understanding ends, and we admit to it, we experience “doubt.” Doubt struggles against that limit, and calls out to God for the answer. Doubt searches for solutions where none are apparent. Doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is not inimical to faith; but it is the opportunity for faith. It stands at the edge of past understanding and searches for more: that “more” comes through faith.

The place of honest doubt is that of a servant who prepares the guest room for the guest. Not the servant but the guest is expected to reside there. It is not doubt that is the aim, but faith. Nevertheless, doubt can prepare the way, if it is honest, and if it becomes neither arrogant nor deceitful. Real doubt, coming from a reverence for truth, is from God: it does not forbid questions, nor does it answer questions prematurely. Instead, it reaches beyond understanding and asks honest questions.

This preparation is essential: if we do not contend seriously with the question we will not understand the richness or the depth of the answer. Doubt is only that point at which we have posed the question and have not yet received the answer. Sometimes the question must be turned over and over in our minds, and it must be posed in its most devastating form. Sometimes it remains unanswered: it has served to bring us into the presence of the One to whom it is addressed. Though he remains silent, it is enough.

But often enough, against the dark horizon of doubt, new understanding bursts forth like the daysprings of a resurrection morning.

Tim Stafford is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, California. He is a distinguished contributor to several magazines. His latest book is Do You Sometimes Feel Like a Nobody? (Zondervan, 1980).

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