The title of this blog is only three words long. But the two nouns, faith and doubt, are among the most misunderstood in the English language. The biggest misunderstanding takes them to be opposites that cancel one another.
Let’s start with Faith.
Faith is the term commonly used today to name a state of mind. That state can be found lurking between being sure of something and outright rejecting it. The faith state of mind is that of partly believing and hoping that a promise will be kept – or something close to a promise. Faith is belief in a sports analysis of our favorite sports team that picks them to win the championship this year. The partly believing and hoping is counterbalanced, in the popular idea of faith, with a measure of uncertainty and doubt.
Faith usually has a more serious meaning when we use it for the trust we place in a person. In these cases, it’s not a stated or implied promise we bank on, but another human in whom we place our confidence to do the right thing at the right time. Even when used of persons, though, it still includes an element of uncertainty. We trust the guy, and we hope he’ll succeed, but we’re not sure he will.
Confusion Arises Here
The most confusing thing about these usual senses of “faith” is that they are not what the New Testament means when it speaks of belief in God as Faith! The fact is, New Testament writers such as Paul, and John, and James, gave the term a brand-new meaning. Previously in the Greek language, Faith had not carried this new meaning. When using it of belief in God’s reality, they spoke of faith as certainty derived from experience. This why we find them saying, “the gospel is something in which we have faith.” Their usage also includes a new sense of “certainty by experience” that we call “know-for-sure.”
Faith or Doubt in God’s Promises
Of course, they also at times use “faith” to refer to trusting in God to keep his promises. This is one of our usual meanings of “faith.” So one looks at the context in which the word is used to be sure what is meant. When it concerns God’s reality, it means that we know it for sure. When it concerns God’s promises, it means we should trust him because he has been faithful to his promises in the past. But since we have not yet seen the promise kept, it is trust that is less than knowing-for-sure.
Faith and Doubt
So how does doubt fit into all this? Is doubt the opposite of faith? Is doubt a sin?
First, with respect to belief in God’s reality, sincere believers who have experienced God’s reality for sure can still be assailed by doubt. The theologian, John Calvin, wrote that a believer’s life is a constant struggle with doubt. But he also noticed that doubt and genuine belief often exist in the same person at the same time. There is nothing impossible about that. The opposite of fully trusting a promise or person is not doubt, it’s disbelief. Which is why being sure of a belief or person doesn’t require lacking doubt, but means being certain beyond any reasonable disbelief.
There is another sense of doubt, however, that doesn’t concern God’s reality. Rather, it focuses on our reliance on his promises. In this matter, too, doubt often assails believers. But these instances are more serious, according to the New Testament. That’s because these are occasions when people are quite confident that God is real. Nevertheless, they fail to trust God to take care of them. In reality, temptation comes in the form of doubt. And they (we) really doubt him.
I think that’s what James is talking about when he says that believers should ask God to take care of their needs. James instructs believers to “ask in faith without doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.” He goes on to add: “a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” Such a person “ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord.”
So it turns out
So it turns out that simply being assailed by doubts that God is real is a common experience of believers. And that experience can take place while still holding fast to his reality in full faith-confidence. But the more insidious and dangerous doubt feeds on a genuine anomaly of belief. This doubt infects the belief that God is real with the doubt that he cares for his people and will do what he’s promised. We call that double-mindedness. And double-mindedness undermines a person’s walk with God.