Learn How (Not) To Doubt

by Paul Copan

Many people today—including Christians—don’t know how to doubt properly. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating a life of perpetual, pervasive, and potentially corrosive doubt, as some do. That would be wrongheaded. Doubting isn’t a duty to be observed; it’s a concern to be addressed. Promoting thoughtfulness and critical thinking skills is one thing. Celebrating a life of doubt is another.

God regularly commands his people not to fear but to trust him, to have confidence that his promises are “Yes” and “Amen” in the crucified, resurrected, ascended, and returning Messiah (2 Cor. 1:20). Yet each of us, to varying degrees, will face doubts. This is why Jude exhorts God’s people to “have mercy on those who are doubting” (Jude 22). In this spirit, the Christian tradition has emphasized certain spiritual works of mercy; alongside instructing the ignorant and comforting the sorrowful is counseling the doubtful. Even John the Baptist had his doubts about the nature of Jesus’s messiahship (Luke 7:17–23), and we could mention other biblical saints who doubted the presence or the purposes of God in the world.

When we experience doubts, we’re in holy company.

The Christian may object: Doesn’t James denounce doubters as “double-minded” and “unstable” (Jas. 1:5–8)? Isn’t all doubting sinful? Actually, James condemns a mindset of divided loyalty between God and the world—a spiritual adultery:

Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? . . . Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. (Jas. 4:4, 8; cf. Matt. 6:24)

The “James doubt” is far different from the “Jude doubt.”

God doesn’t rebuke saints for honest inner struggles, questions, and emotions. Indeed, even amid our doubts and darkness we can show forth God’s presence through faithful living.

Doubt Suppression

If we’re honest, we’ll readily identify with what theologian Avery Dulles has observed: There is a “secret infidel” in every believer’s heart, a kind of internal dialogue between one’s “believing self” and “unbelieving self.” The wrong response to doubting and questioning youth is to keep them in a “Christian bubble”—or simply to dismiss their questions and exhort them to “pray harder,” “read the Bible,” or “just believe.” The right response is to teach them to doubt wisely…

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