There is a strain in Christian thought that I have resisted for a long time: that doubt is a good thing. How can doubt possibly be a good thing? Verses like James 1:6 seem to imply that doubt is a bad thing.
Well, there is doubt, and then there is doubt.
There are pure skeptics who start from the position that nothing is true unless they can prove it. There are lesser skeptics who are willing to eject any idea as soon as there is the first indication that it might be untrue. For example, people so often believe in the existence of a good and loving God until they experience deep, personal pain, and then they quickly toss away their faith.
But on the other hand, there are people like the psalmists who ask God “Why?” and “How long?” whenever things go wrong. And there are people like Job, who struggled to reconcile his personal experience of terrible suffering with his understanding of God and the world.
How can the psalmists and Job be OK, but the skeptic be on thin ice? I can think of a few possible reasons.
First, the psalmists and Job did not question an idea. They questioned a Person, and they questioned this personal God within the context of their relationship with him. Suppose you have a good friend who has spent a lifetime earning your trust. All of a sudden, your friend does something that disappoints you. After all of those years if you are at all a good friend yourself, you will not rush to judgment. You will give your friend the chance to explain. This is a sign of love and respect.
Second, along with providing a Person an opportunity to explain, there is the assumption that the questioner could simply have misunderstood. This can be seen throughout the book of Job. Job and his friends are constantly exploring the belief that an individual’s circumstances are a reflection of their moral standing before God. Good people are blessed, but the wicked suffer. Job is confident in his own righteous life, and yet he has been cursed rather than blessed. He is beginning to see that maybe what is at fault is his understanding of how God works in the world. This is a sign of humility.
Third, questioning one’s own understanding is based on the assumption that one’s beliefs should line up with one’s experience in the world. In our example of the issue of suffering, I might find that some bad circumstance in my life leads me to question whether or not God is good. This demonstrates that I expect the goodness of God to be evident in my life. I expect the goodness and love of God to have some impact on reality.
This expectation is actually faith. I believe in the goodness and love of God so strongly that I actually am expecting to see evidence of it. When I do not see evidence of it, or when I see evidence that appears to contradict it, I am disappointed and shaken. This leads me to turn to God with questions – hopefully questions with love, respect and humility.
This means that doubt can be a sign of faith.
Certainly there are people who have such great faith that it can never be ruffled by anything. Certainly there are people who are humble enough that they automatically assume they have misunderstood. Certainly there are people who love God so much that their love for and trust in him are not bothered by their experiences.
But for the rest of us, there is the wisdom literature of the Bible. There are psalms. There are the books like Job and Ecclesiastes. It is not about having the quick answers. It is about grappling with the questions.
This process is part of what strengthens our relationship with God as we interact with him. It brings us to a deeper understanding by correcting the flaws in our thinking. And it is an expression of the kind of faith that expects what we believe to be actually, truly real.