It’s fascinating to look at the topic of “doubt” in Christian publications and web posts. In article after article, there are calls to recognize the incalculable cost of doubting, and the need for unquestioning belief at all costs.
But “doubt” and “unbelief” are most certainly not the same.
So here’s my question: How often do we cling to something not because we believe it, but because we can’t risk not believing it?
This article deftly addresses the topic:
“Many Christians experience doubt about aspects of their faith at some point. But doubt is not the same as unbelief. It is not the opposite of faith. It is like being in two minds – the word doubt comes from the Latin word ‘dubitare’ and has it roots in the word for ‘two’. Someone who has doubts about their faith is not betraying it but raising questions about it. This can be a positive experience.“
That sounds promising… but it also goes on to say “Christians are encouraged to simply believe – but not to believe simply. Wrestling with doubts and resolving them strengthens a Christian’s faith.” Unfortunately, the subtext in this and similar articles is basically this: “Fine, go ahead and doubt, but don’t neglect to find your way back to believing what you started with.”
For example, a sermon I found says “Yes, there will be days of doubt. Don’t use it as an excuse. Get back to God” as if the only option is returning to what you started doubting.
Such an approach doesn’t give much room to doubt with an eye toward repenting of a belief. The only acceptable repenting seems to be repenting of the unbelief, not of discovering an incorrect or impure belief and then repenting of that.
And that “return to God” message is exactly the thing that prevents us from moving forward. It sets up an invisible but very real structure that discourages repentance, by insisting that existing belief is the very thing that brings salvation.
Now, the word translated “repent” is the Greek word “metanoia” (Strongs 3340) (meaning to change one’s mind), or the Hebrew word “shub” (Strongs 7725) (meaning to turn back or return). It’s not groveling; it’s recognizing the error of a way of thinking or acting, and changing one’s mind. The action (DOING something different) is secondary to the mental change (BELIEVING something different) which must come first.
If anything, that anti-doubt message to “turn back to God” is to never repent of your former beliefs, but to turn back to them and repent of turning away from your beliefs.
Consider the dynamics around admitting doubt in a church setting. If we do confess to our fellow believers any doubt about the rightness of some point of doctrine, all too often the response is immediately, if not strongly, cautionary. We’re told that we need to pray about it, and trust the Holy Spirit to show us the truth. But the undercurrent of that response is that He will remind us of what we already know, and comfort us against doubt.
In other words, I think that most of the time the entire thrust of the message about doubt and unbelief is ultimately that you cannot change your mind about what God meant, or some interpretation of the Scriptures that you were taught. You can only repent of doubting or unbelief.
And in that light, the cost to actually repent of a bad interpretation is extremely high. At best, the response will be muttering and shaking heads in disappointment. At worst, it might be charges of apostasy, because in the eyes of the “faithful” believer, someone who repents – changes their mind – about a doctrinal point is now unfaithful to what they see as obviously Biblical teaching.
I don’t think this cost is in the front of people’s minds when they consider their belief structure. But I strongly believe it’s latent, hidden, an undercurrent of fear of being rejected by those on who we depend for our fellowship, our moral support, and especially our affirmation and acceptance as “good people.”
So when we are confronted with something that offends our sense of doctrine, our reaction is to run away from the challenge. The cost is simply too high. We may wrestle with the idea for a while, but ultimately most of us simply repent of even thinking differently.
But what happens when God Himself, the prompting and nudging of the Holy Spirit within us, is calling us to recognize that something we were either taught directly, or that we learned implicitly, is actually not aligned with His Truth after all?
In all likelihood, our first response is to filter out that nudging. “Oh,” we tell ourselves, “that cannot be God’s voice, because it conflicts with what I was taught.” After all, nearly every church that believes in the modern-day ministry of the Holy Spirit teaches us to weigh every word against THE Word. If it doesn’t align with the Bible, it must be wrong.
But what do we do when the interpretation of the Bible we were taught is the very thing that’s being challenged by the Spirit?
As a simple example, what would the people of Luther’s day do when he proposed that the Catholic church was wrong? He was challenging long-established doctrine, supposedly supported by Scripture.
This, truly, is the crux of deconstruction. When we begin to realize that some doctrine itself may actually be faulty, or is foundationally based on something we now understand is faulty, we now are stuck in this uncomfortable place where we might need to trust the Holy Spirit without having some particular Bible verse on which to draw – at least initially.
That’s a true conundrum, because we’ve been taught to use the Bible as a standard to measure the voice of the Holy Spirit.
There are certainly appropriate responses to this.
For one thing, having a community of fellow believers is critical. Bouncing our thoughts off of them and inviting the Spirit within them to help guide us is helpful. But if they’re from your own doctrinal tradition, they’ll likely just encourage you to not pursue alternate understandings. This is where a diversity of relationships within the larger church is helpful. Ask someone from a different denomination to sit down and discuss things.
Another thing is looking at the original languages. An interlinear translation and concordance can help, giving you tools to look at the original words and their common translations. Also read some Bible commentaries, which often highlight different possible interpretations.
It’s also helpful to read several translations. Websites like Bible Gateway or Bible Hub let you compare multiple translations, to see how different approaches to translation have addressed the topic.
It’s also incredibly helpful to get outside your doctrinal safe space, and read what other traditions have understood about the topic; even if you conclude they’re wrong, it will give your mind a different vantage point, and give the Holy Spirit more “maneuvering room,” so to speak, to catch your attention.
And finally, I’d suggest finding some books on the topic – not just “safe” books from your doctrinal or faith perspective, but from challenging perspectives. If you trust the Holy Spirit to guide you, and you have friends keeping watch over your heart, then understanding all aspects of a topic can only help you better address a topic, with yourself and with others. Sometimes, hearing a counterpoint to our viewpoint gives us a stronger grasp of how to address challenges to it. And sometimes, the counterpoint will let you see the opposite: that our viewpoint needed to be challenged and sometimes overturned. If we discover truth, we’re drawn closer to the Truth Himself.
Before I wrap up this topic, I want to address a couple Biblical examples we have of addressing former understandings, where believers were challenged to change their minds.
One obvious one is Jesus Himself. On numerous occasions (Matthew 5:21, Matthew 5:27, Matthew 5:31, Matthew 5:33, Matthew 5:38, Matthew 5:43, Matthew 12:1-14, John 8:1-11, Mark 2:5-12, John 4:21-24, Mark 3:1-5) He explicitly addressed the need to reinterpret scripture.
Another obvious one is Peter’s vision of the sheet full of unclean foods, where the Lord explicitly reframed Peter’s understanding of the Old Testament dietary laws. In fact, it’s arguable that Peter was directly told by the Lord in this encounter that numerous very clear Torah verses were no longer applicable.
I understand that most believers consider Scripture to be complete and immutable: any such challenges within the Bible itself have been completely addressed and framed for our modern understanding. Within that viewpoint, we cannot expect – or accept – that God today would possibly undo some of His instruction presented in the Bible.
But even if we do accept that premise, Jesus’ challenges on the Sermon of the Mount should get us thinking that our cherished interpretations may be wrong. We may very well be holding onto very carefully curated, very strongly-supported beliefs about the Bible and our duties to the Lord that are in fact misunderstandings of His true word for His people.
I find this to be quite consistent with the Bible itself. It often speaks of the unfolding of mysteries. Consider the Lord’s word to Jeremiah in Jeremiah 33:3: “Call to Me and I will answer you, and I will tell you great and mighty things, which you do not know.” Or Jesus’ words to His disciples in Mark 4:11, that “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God.” Or Paul’s word to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 4:1, “This is the way any person is to regard us: as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.“
I find it impossible to believe that all possible mysteries have already been revealed to the writers of the New Testament, and that in ages forward we can only have the chance to wrestle with long-revealed mysteries. If God’s glory is to conceal matters and then give them to kings to reveal (Proverbs 25:2), and we are now kings and priests in the Kingdom, surely God continues to reveal mysteries to us today. As such, I think it likely that He will challenge our old understandings, our old doctrines, and ask us to repent of former beliefs and move forward in new understandings.
So again, we come to the thesis of this discussion: How often do we cling to something not because we believe it, but because we can’t risk not believing it?
When God presents us with a new awareness of something, are we willing to pay the cost to accept it, and repent, and change our beliefs?
As for me, a few years ago I told the Lord that He had my “yes” to challenge anything I believed. As David said in Psalm 13923-24, “Search me, God, and know my heart; Put me to the test and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there is any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way.” I might wrestle with coming around to what He asks of me, but I was serious about allowing Him to upend anything He wanted in my belief structure.
And He has.
And it has cost me. Dearly.
At the risk of sounding like I’m comparing myself to Jesus, I think of His words in Matthew 13:57, where His family “took offense at Him. But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not dishonored except in his hometown and in his own household.‘” Some of the strongest objection to what I’m learning and speaking today has been my family and my former spiritual household.
But it is worth every bit of that cost. As Jesus said just a few verses earlier in Matthew 13:44, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells everything that he has, and buys that field.” Oh, the joy I’ve found.
And the fruit that I’m finding in my life is in this same story, in Matthew 13:51, when Jesus says to His disciples “Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure new things and old.” So many new things, and ancient things, in perfect harmony at last!
So I’d encourage you: Don’t be afraid to consider the cost of changing your beliefs. If God the Holy Spirit is fingering something in you, trust Him and repent – let Him change your mind. You won’t regret it.