Is doubt a sin?

I’d be lying if I said I never have doubts about faith. I cannot claim to fully understand God and it’s uncomfortable. I don’t want uncertainty, but where there is uncertainty, doubt is normal.

Doubt is hard enough to live with. Trying to follow God who is so wonderful He eludes our comprehension is difficult. But do you know what makes it even harder? Being told your doubt displays a lack of faith, and that it’s sinful.

Doubt

So. Doubt: is it a sin?

Condemn the doubters!

If you’ve ever been told your doubt is sinful, you’ve probably had James 1:6-8 quoted at you. In the context of asking God for wisdom, James says:

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. Those who doubt should not think they will receive anything from the Lord; they are double-minded and unstable in all they do. (James 1:6-8 TNIV)

Seems pretty clear, right? Doubt = double-minded, unstable sin. If you have doubts, God isn’t pleased and you shouldn’t expect answers to prayer. “Condemn the doubters!” James says. Right? Wrong.

That’s not what he says. The word for ‘doubt’ is more complex than that. The word is not about moments of uncertainty or wavers in faith, but something more deep-rooted than that. Douglas Moo describes this ‘doubt’ as “a basic division within the believer” wherein “he [or she] wants wisdom from God one day and the wisdom of the world the next.”  It’s ultimately about a lack of integrity in our commitment to God.

This is why we get the image of sea waves being blown and tossed all over the place. The kind of ‘doubt’ he describes is a state of having no consistency, constantly changing depending on what the last thing you saw or heard was. This is very different from a Christian committed to God but with moments or areas of doubt.

Doubt and questions are ok

This is perhaps helped by looking at the most famous ‘doubter’ of them all: Thomas. All his buddies have seen Jesus risen, but he hasn’t and he won’t accept it until he has. Jesus comes to him, offers him all the evidence he asks for and says:

Stop doubting and believe. (John 20:27 TNIV)

Thomas gets a lot of bad press, but it’s time for that to stop. He was committed to Jesus. When he hears Jesus plans to go somewhere He’d likely be killed, Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).

Doubt ThomasThomas’s doubt does not signal lack of faith, but the presence of questions. When Jesus says ‘stop doubting’ it’s not the same word James uses, and rather than castigate Thomas, Jesus allows him to explore his questions, even providing answers and assurance. His questions matter to Jesus. Faith and questions are not opposites. To have faith is not to suppress our brains, our questions or our doubts. To have faith is to bring all of those things to God.

Job spends most of his 42 chapters asking questions of God. The Psalms are full of questions: “Why, Lord?”; “How long, Lord?”; “How can you, Lord?” But never is this outside of a conviction that God is faithful, that He is good.

It is not that our questions and doubts always get resolved (like Thomas’s). Often they don’t. Faith is believing God is who He says He is even when we can’t work out how. And learning to limp.

Jesus calls doubters

More than just being kind to doubters, Jesus calls us – with our doubt – to serve Him. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18b-20) is Jesus giving His people His mission: “Go and make disciples”. This is how it’s introduced:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, the worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said… (Matthew 28:16-18a)

And then the Great Commission comes. They worshipped Him, but some doubted. And then He calls them anyway!

Doubt doesn’t disqualify worship. It is possible to praise God, to worship Him, to offer Him our all even in the midst of our doubts. I don’t understand how God’s goodness tallies with some of my experiences, but I believe He’s good and I’ll worship Him anyway. I don’t know why Jesus isn’t coming back sooner, but I know God’s plans are perfect and I’ll praise Him for that. I often don’t feel as though God is very close, but He’s promised to be, so I’ll believe it even when I doubt it, and I’ll draw close to Him.

Perhaps even more excitingly, doubt doesn’t disqualify mission. Jesus called those who had doubts to do His work. I don’t need all the answers to step into His purposes, to pursue His mission. He doesn’t ask you to ignore your questions or your doubts but to keep on going in the meantime until they’re resolved, whichever side of eternity that happens.

If doubt is rooted in a life that never fully commits to Jesus, there’s a problem. But if doubt is part of a life focused on Him, committed to Him and wrestling with what that means, Jesus says “Welcome! Let’s explore this together, and as we do let’s get to work, too!”


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  • Graham Criddle

    Some thoughts…..

    This is a really helpful post and important for people to engage with as doubt is something which is debilitating to so many.

    While I agree with most of it there are a few details which I think are worth looking at in more detail.

    I agree with your comments about the passage in James and it is helpful to look at that in its proper perspective.
    I agree with where you get to – we are called to worship and mission even through and in our doubts. And, sometimes, engaging in these can help us move through doubt to greater assurance.

    I agree that people are shown to doubt in many cases in the Bible – and there is a sense of openness and honesty in that which is helpful

    I’m not convinced about your use of Matthew 28:16-18a to show that Jesus calls doubters. There is a question as to whether this is “doubting” or “hesitating” and France explores what it means:

    “So what sort of “hesitation” was this? The verb distazō occurs only once elsewhere in the NT,16 where it describes Peter’s loss of confidence in the face of the elements in 14:31; interestingly there too the “hesitation” is linked with “worship.” (14:33) It denotes not intellectual doubt so much as practical uncertainty, being in two minds. In this context it could indicate that some were not sure whether it was Jesus they were seeing (cf. the recognition problem in Luke 24:16, 31–32, 37; John 20:15; 21:4–7), but there is no such uncertainty in the other resurrection appearance Matthew records (vv. 9–10), and they are expecting to meet Jesus (see above). More likely it indicates that they did not know how to respond to Jesus in this new situation, where he was familiar and yet now different; cf. the bewilderment and fear of the three disciples who witnessed the transfiguration (17:1–7). Luke similarly refers to uncertainty and disbelief when the disciples met the risen Jesus (Luke 24:38, 41), as does John most famously with regard to Thomas (John 20:24–29). But a further factor may be relevant here: the last time these eleven disciples had seen Jesus was as they ran away from him in Gethsemane; so what sort of reception could they now expect from the master they had deserted? The conflicting instincts to worship the risen Jesus and to avoid a potentially embarrassing encounter make very human sense in this context.”

    R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007), 1111–1112.

    If France is right then this isn’t really “doubt” in the general usage of the term.

    For balance, it would probably be important to look at some of the passages where doubt seems to be spoken of as something which prevents prayers being answered – such as Matthew 21:21 (although this is really a different point to the one you are making)

    So, a really helpful post but there are a few details to explore further.

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  • Brian George

    Thanks for this Dave. Your blog had many clarifying points that I can reflect on when doubt creeps in.
    Brian G