Faith and Doubt

I once heard a man say, in the context of contending with his son’s devastating injury, that “faith makes no provision for doubt.” I think I understood what he meant, although I couldn’t understand his decision that he explained with those words. He was a deeply committed Christian, and his earnest prayer was for his son to be healed. He knew the scriptures, and recalled the apostle James writing “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6-7). Even Jesus said that we can move mountains—and his son’s catastrophic injury was definitely a “mountain”— if we “have faith and do not doubt” (Matthew 21:21). To this man, planning for his son’s future as if he would not be healed was essentially doubting that his prayer for healing would be answered.

But I am reminded of other stories in the Bible in which faith seems to coexist with doubt, even in the same person at the same time. One also involved a man asking for his son to be healed, in that case from convulsions and being unable to talk since his early childhood which, we are told in Mark 9:17-29, were demonic in source. The anguished father seemed at the end of his rope when he came to Jesus pleading, “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” It’s difficult to say for sure, but Jesus almost sounds offended, as if the man was questioning the very power of God. “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” That led to the conflicted, but oh-so-honest reply with the boy’s father exclaiming, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)

Faith Mixed With Doubt

I know exactly what he means. Of all the prayers recorded in the Bible, this is probably the one I’ve prayed the most. “Lord, I would like to believe you can do what I’m asking, but to be honest with you, I’ve got my doubts, too.” Or maybe, “I believe you can do it, but I’m not sure you will.” I don’t know if it makes much difference what we are really trying to say because we still end up where faith coexists with doubt. In fact, they’re all mixed together. Incredibly, the father’s wavering faith is effectual—Jesus heals the boy.

But that’s not the only instance where wavering faith proves enough. There is the apostle Peter climbing over the side of the boat and walking on the stormy water until he takes his eyes off of Jesus and focuses on the wind and waves churning around him (Matthew 14:28-31). And how many times did Jesus chide his disciples for their lack of faith, going so far as to call them “you of little faith?” And then, after three years of mentoring by Jesus, the whole lot of them, including notably Peter again, deserted the Lord and scattered in the final hours leading up to his death (Matthew 26:56-75). Saying that theirs was a faith mixed with doubt is probably putting it mildly. Nevertheless, God honored their faith, as conflicted as it was, and used them to change the world.

The Doing More Than the Thinking

Maybe the reason that the nature of faith can seem confusing is that we lose sight of its essence, convincing ourselves that faith has more to do with the thoughts in our heads instead of the steps that we take. But faith is about the doing, much more than the thinking. If I am terrified to fly, and have serious doubts that the massive plane—built, maintained and piloted by people I don’t know—will bring me to my destination, but climb aboard anyway, you can see the essence of my faith. I have given substance to the safe plane flight I hope for by getting on the aircraft. My actions reveal that my true belief is that the plane will bring me safely to my destination, whatever doubts creep into my mind.

Walking by Faith, Doubts and All

What is true in everyday life is certainly true in our relationship with God. If we doubt the path that Jesus points to as being the best for us to take, but take it anyway, then we have stepped out in faith. We literally “walk by faith” (2 Corinthians 5:7 NASB), doubts and all. And, like the man in Mark 9, and Peter and the rest of the disciples, and countless other believers including this writer can attest, that faith “will not be disappointed” (Romans 10:11 NASB).