Is it any wonder that doubt can infiltrate our prayers, given the gap we may experience between what Scripture seems to promise and our lived reality? In Mark 11:23, Jesus tells us that God will rearrange geography for us if we come to him in faith. The implication is that our heavenly Father will do miraculous things for us. Yet we all can recount times when we have prayed for mundane miracles—perhaps an end to insomnia or the resolution to a long-standing conflict—and our circumstances don’t budge. It’s in that space where, as A. J. Swoboda describes, “doubt happens to us.”
Jesus’ brother James further complicates the equation by suggesting that the reason our personal mountains fail to move might very well be because doubt has somehow corrupted our faith. “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” (James 1:6–8).
Who, then, can pray? Because if we’re honest, we all struggle with doubt from time to time. Verses like these may lead us to believe that we’d be better off either denying doubt or avoiding God altogether when it surfaces.
Doubt can destabilize our faith, but it need not silence our prayers. In fact, when we bring our doubts to God, our faith can deepen.
Doubt can affect each of us at various points along our Christian journey; it’s like an underground stream that runs along the road of faith. Doubt can seep into our lives through many portals, such as unanswered prayers, parts of Scripture that lack congruence with our lives, or unabated suffering. Wounds inflicted by other believers or spiritual leaders are another common entry point. When those who claim to follow Jesus act reprehensibly, it may cause us to second-guess God or dull our hunger for the entire Christian enterprise.
Doubt can also emerge when our expectations are dashed. Whether or not we’re aware of it, we often carry specific expectations for how God should respond to our prayer requests. We build these expectations around our theological constructs—how we interpret what we’ve read in Scripture, what we’ve been taught, and what we’ve experienced. So if God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we hoped or imagined, disappointment can give way to doubt or even leave us wondering whether prayer is pointless.
Making Peace with Doubt
When we take James’s words to heart, we may assume we simply need to muster more faith. Or we may imagine that to overcome doubt, we need to acquire more knowledge. But the reality is we can’t fabricate faith and we will never fully comprehend God, no matter how much Scripture we memorize, how many seminary degrees we earn, or how many hours we pray. As Paul reminded the Corinthians, we see through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12). We are limited creatures stuck in Earth time without the capacity to fully understand our own narrative, let alone God’s mysterious purposes or the Enemy’s nefarious schemes.
To some extent, our experience of doubt depends on how we perceive it. If we understand it to be, as poet Alfred Lord Tennyson jested, “Devil-born” or akin to an invader that breaches our defenses in order to deconstruct our faith, then doubt is to be avoided or denied at all costs. But that’s not the only vantage point.
“I think doubt and faith are not opposites,” says New Testament scholar Scot McKnight. “Doubt is often inherent to faith.” If we explore our doubt and trace it back to its source, it may expose our own false constructs about God or our feeble attempts to control him. In this way, doubt can actually propel us toward God in humility and deepen our relationship with him by inching our prayers toward greater honesty and intimacy.
How Then Do We Pray?
Scripture urges us to pray without ceasing and in total confidence that nothing can separate us from God’s love (1 Thess. 5:17; Rom. 8:38–39). That nothing includes doubt.
We can be assured of these two truths: Questions and doubts are a common experience among people of faith, and God longs for us to be in relationship with him. It just doesn’t make sense that God would expect us to deny, eradicate, or compartmentalize our doubts before conversing with him in prayer. Consider a marriage relationship: Silence and withdrawal rarely resolve conflict or draw spouses closer together. It’s much more likely that they will expand the distance and encourage worst-case-scenario thinking. The same holds true in our life with God: When doubts arise, we must remain proximate and vulnerable and continue to pray.
Scripture provides many examples of people who demonstrate that a person can simultaneously question God or the efficacy of prayer while also continuing to engage with God in faith. Consider Sarah, Abraham’s wife: When she overheard the three mysterious visitors prophesy that she would have a son within a year’s time, she laughed at the seeming impossibility of this promise (Gen. 18). But God fulfilled his promise, and Sarah is commended as a hero of the faith because she cooperated with God’s plan despite her doubts (Heb. 11:11).
King David, never one to conceal his emotions from anyone, helps us understand how to pray even if we feel like a storm-tossed wave. Psalm 13 begins with an angsty, doubt-filled cry: “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” (vv. 1–2). Rather than avoiding God or pretending he’s not troubled, David draws near to God while admitting his doubts and frustrations. He then prays, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me” (vv. 5–6), demonstrating that we cannot get to true praise by denial or pretense. God is neither threatened nor limited by our doubt—or fear or anxiety—in part because our emotions cannot invalidate his character or diminish
What, then, did James mean when he warned that if believers didn’t pray in pure faith, they could not expect to receive anything from God? Perhaps James was not issuing an edict meant to silence us when we are uncertain, but rather, McKnight told me, he was appealing to believers to “fully trust” God’s character—regardless of their circumstances. This subtle difference is crucial. We may explore doubt regarding the what and the why but are discouraged from doubting the who. Perhaps James is not correcting believers for being uncertain; he’s cautioning us not to malign God.
A Doorway to Deepened Intimacy
Jesus’ response to those who shouldered doubt should give us confidence to approach him regardless of our emotional state. The Messiah never turned away those who were truly seeking him, even if they openly admitted their uncertainty. Two examples of this are Jesus’ interactions with the father of the demon-possessed boy and with his disciple Thomas.
As the distraught father gave Jesus details about his son’s condition, he added, “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus responded, “ ‘If you can’? … Everything is possible for one who believes.” And then, “Immediately, the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’ ” (Mark 9:21–24, emphasis added). Jesus then healed his son.
In perhaps the most familiar passage on doubt in the New Testament, Thomas articulated his struggle to believe the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection: “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” (John 20:25). But Jesus later appeared and offered Thomas exactly what he needed: physical proof. Artist Makoto Fujimura draws out an often-overlooked aspect of Thomas’s response, writing in Art and Faith, “Perhaps we should reframe our view of this apostle and begin referring to him as ‘believing Thomas.’ After all, once the invitation was given, Thomas felt no need to actually touch Jesus’s wounds. His faith allowed him to move beyond the ‘proof’ of God’s promise.”
In the act of alleviating this disciple’s uncertainty, Jesus speaks across the centuries to normalize questions and doubt and to assure us that they need not ever become a barrier to intimacy with him. We can trust that Christ will not turn away from us, even when our faith wavers.
By minding our doubt rather than denying it or shaming ourselves, we can grieve those places where God did not answer prayers the way we hoped, relinquish our false beliefs and unrealistic expectations, and develop a more intimate prayer life. Doubt does not disqualify us from praying. In fact, it should prompt us to pray all the more, since God’s love and faithfulness may be the only things powerful and true enough to dispel those doubts.
Dorothy Littell Greco is a photographer, writer, and the author of Marriage in the Middle: Embracing Midlife Surprises, Challenges, and Joys.
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