28 January 2008

Without a doubt?

Three days ago I took the funeral service for a lovely six year old girl. She died very unexpectedly just after Christmas. It's tragedies like this, especially when they are close to home, that raise all sorts of questions and doubts in our minds about God.

My concern is that many Christians are afraid to admit their doubts. They’re afraid of looking stupid. They're worried it might unsettle other Christians if they confess to being shaken in their faith. They don't want to "let the side down" by sounding disloyal to Jesus. We can sympathise with that.

But actually doubt is a healthy and positive property of faith. But we confuse "healthy" doubt with something that sounds similar, but is very different.

First, doubt is not scepticism. The sceptic doubts everything deliberately, as a matter of principle. Secondly, doubt is not unbelief. The unbeliever has decided not to have faith in God. It’s someone who won’t believe, even in the face of good evidence. Instead, "healthy" doubt is a property of honest and growing faith. It echoes the man in the Bible (Mark 9 v 24) who cried out "I believe. Help my unbelief!".

It works something like this. Real Christianity is a personal trust in Jesus Christ. Our faith develops as we hear and consider the gospel message about him in the Bible. But then an event happens, or our circumstances change, or someone questions what we believe, and all sorts of doubts arise. "Can it really be true?" "Does God really love me?" and so on.

But this is an invitation to grow in faith and understanding. We are forced to think, forced to search the Bible for answers, forced to approach God in prayer with questions. And what we find, if our search is sincere, is this – our understanding of the truth deepens, and we discover more strongly than ever the trustworthiness of God. Doubt, rightly handled, gives rise to stronger faith.

A 17th century teacher called Francis Bacon said this about learning – "If a man begins with certainties, he will end in doubts. If he is content to begin with doubts, he will end in certainties." Jesus said to those who were worried, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will open to you."

Next time something throws you, and your faith is a little shaken, see it as an opportunity from God to grow in your understanding of him and his trustworthiness.

Do not be afraid to doubt.

Simon Smallwood
Vicar of St George’s