Thursday, April 11, 2013

Doubt is Holy

It’s one of those phrases from scripture that is so well known it has become a part of the common vocabulary - “Doubting Thomas.” Problem is, it’s a misnomer.

Stick with me for a while here…

There is a word that means “doubt” in New Testament Greek. It’s diakrino, and it’s found a few times here and there in the New Testament, like Matthew 21:21 where Jesus says, “If you have faith and do not doubt, you could say to the mountain, ‘Get up and jump in the ocean,’ and it would.”

That’s a word John might have chosen if he had wanted it in chapter 20, and John never wasted a word. The word John used in chapter 20 verse 27 is not diakrino, though. It is apistos. That’s the word pistos, or “faith,” with the prefix a-, meaning “without.”

For those of you who are Greek Geeks, we’re talking about the phrase μ γίνου πιστος λλ πιστός, in verse 27.

The NRSV and the NIV both have Jesus saying to Thomas, “Do not doubt, but believe.”

The King James Version actually gets this one much closer to right when it translates the phrase, “Be not faithless, but believing.”

I might translate it, “Don’t be faithless; be faithful.”

So what?

If you’ve skimmed the first few paragraphs, I hope you’ll start reading now. This is the “So what” of that little linguistic exercise.

Too many people think that following Jesus doesn’t leave you any room to doubt. “Doubting Thomas” is never intended as a compliment. We too often think of “doubt” as the opposite of “belief,” which means it must be a bad thing. And so many people go through life denying doubt, craving certainty, and otherwise diminishing the mysteries of the cosmos.

As evidence, consider the overabundance of phrases like “The Bible clearly says…” tossed so thoughtlessly about in so many conversations these days. This theology says, “There’s one way to see things, and if you don’t see things precisely that way, you are just wrong. And if you doubt any of this stuff precisely the way it’s been presented … well, I’ll pray for you, dearie!”

The way I see it, doubt is not the opposite of faith. As a matter of fact, expressing your doubt can be an act of great faith. Faith is what gives you the courage to continue on in the presence of doubt. Actually a doubt that is expressed courageously and faithfully can lead to a fuller understanding of the truth. On the other hand, stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge doubt causes people to stagnate, and leaves them ill-equipped to deal with life’s inevitable fluctuations.

Doubt leaves us room to dialogue with one another. Doubt primes our curiosity. Doubt fuels discovery, pushing us deeper and stretching us outward at the same time. I might even go so far as to say that doubt is necessary for faith to mature.

Once the church taught that the earth was flat. Somebody doubted that, and now we understand God’s creation much more fully. I imagine there were many diverse responses to the newly offered hypothesis that the earth is actually a sphere.
            1 - One may have rejected the new knowledge in favor of the orthodox doctrine.
            2 - One may have rejected the church, thinking that if you can’t trust one teaching, you can’t trust any of them.
(Both of these responses reflect an immature understanding of the creative power of doubt.)
            3 - One may have incorporated the new knowledge into a new understanding of God and grown in the process.
(This response embraces the doubt and uses its power to launch into a deeper truth.)

My advice? As soon as someone says, “The Bible clearly says” or some similar code phrase that indicates they have no doubts, you should exit the conversation.  It isn’t going anywhere, anyway. People with no doubts are scary to me. And people who insist that nobody should have doubts when it comes to questions of faith are theological tyrants.

Not only is doubt okay, it is holy. Doubt is necessary to maturing in faith, and in life in general. I hope you will embrace your doubt, express it with confidence, and see how you might just grow in the process.


James W Lung said...

When and how did the church ever teach that the earth was flat?

That's beside the point.

For sure, doubt is not inconsistent with faith.

Unbelief is a different matter. It's the difference between Mary's response to news brought by an Angel, and Zechariah's.

I'm blessed with total ignorance of NT Greek. Thus, this question:

Does NT Greek distinguish between "doubt" and "unbelief."

Esp. with respect to the verse, (I know it's in there somewhere, "Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief."

Interesting post.

Andy B. said...

Thank you for straightening me out, James. The "flat earth" thing is a bad example. I was writing quickly, pulled a misty illustration out of my head, and didn't verify it.

Yes. That passage you cite is doesn't use "diakrino" but rather "apistos," just like in the John 20 example. There absolutely is a New Testament distinction between doubt and unbelief.

Kansas Bob said...

Here is the way that columnist Cal Thomas once put it when reflecting on Mother Teresa ...

"Perhaps Mother Teresa's doubt lasted longer than most, but doubt is not the same as disbelief and in her actions as well as her words, she exhibited more faith than any doubter -- or non-doubter -- I have known."

James W Lung said...

I like the contrast between Mary and Ezekial. Mary: "How can this be?" She is not rejecting the possibility, but rather wondering how she can be with child (she takes as a given that she's gonna have a baby) when she knows as a certainty that her being pregnant is an impossibility. She begins from a position of faith: He said this will happen, and I'm as certain as I can be that it will happen, but I cannot for the life of me fathom how he is going to bring this about.

Ezekiel, on the other hand, needed more information.

Another way of looking at the question is last week's sermon text, at least in my church. Poor Phillip was not there the first time Jesus appeared, and insisted on empirical evidence. He needed to insert his fingers in the wounds, and feep the side torn open by the spear.

Notice that Phillip did not totally deny the possibility because of epistemological presuppositions: He did not reject the possibility, but he needed further proof.

God provided the further evidence in both cases.

Here, what might appear to be "unbelief" is really a form of existential doubt: The presuppositions are not fixed, but rather open to being proven wrong.

It's worth noting that what appears to be unbelief does not lead to rejection and judgment , but God finds a way, sometimes gently and sometimes harshly, to open the eyes of the existential doubter to a reality they previously could not conceive.

This is contrasted to the unbelief of the Pharisees, and the "hardness of hear" Paul talks about in Ephesians 4:20.

So I guess the difference between doubt and unbelief that God honors and unbelief that leads to condemnation is the predisposition of the heart: Lord, I believe, but I really need some help here. Help me to really believe.

Anonymous said...

James 1:5-8 opposes faith (pistis) to doubt (diakrinō).