DO YOU BELIEVE?
God invites us on a journey of faith and welcomes our doubts along the way.
BY BARNABAS PIPER
In Hebrews 11:1, we see something mind-bending, something that looks almost like a contradiction in terms: “Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen.” Faith is defined in terms that seem opposed to one another — reality or assurance of hope, proof or conviction of the unseen. If something is hoped for and is unseen, that means we’re inevitably unsure of it. We may be confident, we may believe strongly in it, but we aren’t sure. But this verse says that faith is the assurance of those things, the conviction of them. Faith proves to our hearts the very thing we’re unsure of. Confounding, right?
Well, as long as we’re wading in deep waters let’s go a little deeper. The further implication in this verse is that faith and doubt are inseparable. If there is no doubt, there can be no faith. Keep in mind that doubt is essentially not knowing something, not being sure of it. This is an uncomfortable truth, especially if you think of doubt as inherently sinful. Many of us do instinctively, or culturally, think this way. Our church tradition left little or no room for doubt or defined it in such a way that to doubt was to sin. So, this verse attaches something we don’t like and don’t think is good (doubt) to something we desperately want and know we need (faith). But if you remember that doubt isn’t inherently sinful and is inherently human because of our limitations and God’s infinity and perfection, this verse begins to shine in a happier light and becomes clearer.
Of course, faith and doubt are inseparably linked. How else could we believe anything about an infinite, perfect God? Our instinct is to want clear answers and empirical evidence for every idea. We want neat and tidy truths summed up clearly, but with God we get no such thing. We certainly can’t reduce Him to a size we can wrap our heads around. Nor can we overcome our sinful blindness and skewed perspective on our own. Questions will remain unanswered. Evidence will be unsatisfactory. We will never neatly systematize and sum up God. This means that faith, the assurance and confidence of those things we hope for in the Lord and the conviction of those things we haven’t seen about Him, is the only right response to doubt. There can be no faith without doubt.
Unbelieving Doubt — Faith in Me
But there can absolutely be doubt without faith. This is doubt that destroys faith and is what I call “unbelieving doubt.”
When unbelieving doubt poses a question, it’s not interested in the answer for any reason other than to disprove it. Unbelieving doubt is on the attack. If you’re experiencing this kind of doubt, you’re not asking questions to learn; you’re asking in order to undermine or out of skepticism. You’re resistant to belief. You don’t want to progress to an answer. You want to show that there is no answer or to deflect and disparage the answer, so you don’t have to believe it. Unbelieving doubt isn’t working toward anything true but merely against belief. These doubts are the wild monsters that wreck faith.
How does a person get here? What separates unbelieving doubt from believing doubt? (I know, “believing doubt” sounds like a contradiction; an explanation is forthcoming.)
Ultimately the answer is this: Unbelieving doubt is placing your faith in the wrong thing. That’s right, unbelieving doubt is based on faith. It may refuse to have faith in God or in His Word, but it absolutely functions on faith — faith in self. The doubt that destroys our faith in Jesus is actually faith in ourselves.
Consider this: A refusal to believe God is an affirmation that I know better; it’s the belief that God doesn’t know best. Thus, it’s a belief in my own knowledge, my own way, my own wisdom. A resistance to seeing God’s Word as true and authoritative is an affirmation that I define truth and am my own authority. Unbelieving doubt is an assertion that I am god and is an idolatry of me.
Think back to Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden and brought sin and death into God’s perfect creation. What was their attitude and what were they believing? God doesn’t really know best. God isn’t really telling the truth. God doesn’t really have my best in mind. I know best and I can gain the status and wisdom to be on par with God, to be my own god. Their doubt in God was belief in a lie.
Now go back to Hebrews 11:1. When we read it initially, we were thinking about faith in God. We were considering how the unknown things were great mysteries of God and the unseen things were His vast infinity beyond our understanding. It takes faith to have surety in those things. But think about how it might read as a verse about faith in myself. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for — in and from myself, whether or not I have ever proven myself capable before. Faith is the conviction of things not seen — that I don’t believe are true about God. If I can’t see them, they can’t be real and if I don’t understand them, they don’t make sense.
It takes faith to doubt God, just as much as it does to believe in God. Except that this faith is based on a finite, sinful person who will inevitably follow in the footsteps of Adam and Eve.
The doubt that undermines faith isn’t a doubt of simply being unsure; we all have that. It’s a doubt of refusal to believe. Unbelieving doubt is the conviction that what I’m unsure of is more defining of reality than what God says about reality. And to hold this conviction you must believe profoundly in yourself and your ability to know, to understand, and to outwit God.
Doubt Is Personal
Sometimes putting things in terms of “doubt” and “belief” makes them impersonal. It can sound intellectual and like a thought exercise or a problem to puzzle out. But that isn’t how the Bible deals with unbelief. Scripture makes clear that what we believe about God and how we believe it is the defining thing about us. So, to discuss “unbelieving doubt” is no mere thought exercise or puzzle. It’s a matter of life being rich and full or empty and hopeless.
Earlier we described unbelieving doubt as idolatry, the belief in self as the lord of life. How does this look in the midst of struggles?
- Thinking God made a mistake.
- Thinking God forgot something.
- Thinking God was surprised by something.
- Thinking God isn’t who He says He is in the Bible.
- Thinking God hasn’t or will not keep His promises.
- Thinking God isn’t good because He isn’t doing what we want Him to do.
- Thinking God owes us something.
Most of you reading this believe in God. And most of you who believe in God claim to follow Him. So, let me pose this question: What is the difference between believing we are the lord of our own lives and not believing in God at all? If our doubts put us in a position where we no longer trust God, we question His motives, we wonder about His abilities, we’re skeptical of His presence and power, and we mistrust His Word then what is the real, functional difference between these unbelieving doubts and not believing in God at all?
The Fool’s Way vs. The Wise Way
Psalm 14:1 and 53:1 both begin the same way: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” In biblical terms, a fool is someone who rebels against God, who is wise in his own eyes, who thinks he knows best. Does this sound familiar? In fact, it sounds a lot like unbelieving doubt. The rejection of God is foolishness according to the Bible. But we need to understand that “foolishness” isn’t the same as “stupidity” or “ignorance.” Those are issues of knowledge and immaturity. Foolishness can’t be dismissed as petty nonsense. Foolishness, as the Bible defines it, is sin leading to destruction — and unbelieving doubt is foolishness.
Look at Proverbs 9:10. It offers a refrain that is woven throughout the pages of Proverbs and is reflected across all the books of the Bible: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” To grasp the significance of this we need to understand what both fear and wisdom mean.
To fear the Lord doesn’t mean to cower or feel threatened. First John tells us that “perfect love drives out fear” (4:18), and that “God is love” (4:8), so we know this can’t be that kind of fear. Instead, imagine standing in the African Savanna and seeing a bull elephant striding toward you. You would be afraid, but you would be awed too. Now imagine standing on the brink of Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world at over 3,200 feet. You would be weak in the knees at the height and the rush of water, but you would be overwhelmed by the beauty and majesty too. Now imagine meeting Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain, known for her diplomacy, gentility, and dignity. You would be nervous and overwhelmed by her position of royalty but also warmed and welcomed by her grace. Combine these and we have the slightest sense of what it feels like to fear God.
But it’s more than this too. To fear the Lord is to know and believe deep down in your soul that God is infinite, all-powerful, and all-good, and we’re not. So, it’s to live life according to the way and command of the God who knows best, plans best, works best, and has our best in mind. This is wisdom. Wisdom is to walk according to the way of the Lord, not the way of self. It is the way of hope and life.
Unbelieving doubt is foolishness, rebellion against the living God. It’s not a mere exploration of ideas but rather a rejection of the truth that gives life. Believing in God is hard. Believing in God can be confusing. Sometimes it is scary, and so is fearing the Lord. The difference is that the fear of the Lord brings us into the love of the Lord, which drives out other fears and is the way of wisdom, life, and hope.
Barnabas Piper is the author of The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity and Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith. He cohosts the popular “Happy Rant” podcast and writes for The Blazing Center, as well as numerous other publications and websites. Barnabas speaks regularly at churches and conferences around the country and lives in Nashville, where he is on staff at Immanuel Nashville church.