God is tender with our doubting: the Bible says so (no matter what the Bible says)

Posted by PeteEnns on February 3, 2017 in doubt 5 Comments

lamentI get a lot of great, honest questions from my students on almost a daily basis. Here is one from yesterday:

“How do you read James 1:6-7, particularly as it concerns doubting, It seems as though James is saying that those who doubt God’s power are like waves and what not. Is this a specific theology of the time, or is it really saying TO ME that I should never doubt?”

Here is what we read in James 1:6-7: But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

Well that seems clear as crystal: doubt = bad. So I told this student, “Get with the program, pal. You can read the Bible just as well as I can and you know that any shred of doubt makes God very, very, very angry. I hope you can live with yourself.”

Yes, everyone here thinks I’m hilarious.

I didn’t say that, of course, largely because I wrote this book The Sin of Certainty where I argue that doubt is normal, biblical, and spiritually beneficial. So here’s what I actually said.

First, different biblical authors have different perspectives. I don’t think we should read one author as cancelling out another (like Job or some Psalms). It’s important, therefore, to try to understand not simply what James is saying but why he is saying it. Which brings us to . . .

Second, James is speaking in the context of “trials” and the “testing of your faith” (James 1:2-3) in what was thought to be the end of the age. Like other New Testament authors, James likely thought of Jesus’s resurrection as stage 1 of a 2-stage process that would come to completion soon. In that context of “suffering, though the time is near,” a tone of warning and  “pull yourself together, man!”is the expected rhetoric.

That context, however, is not one which I or my student share. We have, rather, more in common in this sense with Old Testament authors for whom no end was in sight, which afforded plenty of opportunity to struggle with their faith (e.g., Lament Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations). So, James is valuable (of course) but not for every context, and so doesn’t simply trump Qoheleth, Job, or a psalmist. Scripture is diverse and multivalent (which loops us back to the first point).

Third, the Greek word there translated as “doubt” does not mean what it has come to mean too often in our western rationalist society, namely intellectual uncertainty: somesin-of-certainty-peter-enns intellectual struggling/questioning brought on by life experiences, bouts with depression, personal tragedies, etc.

The Greek word is diakrinō and connotes (don’t worry, I looked this up) a “divided loyalty,” which, as we saw in #2, is a particularly pressing concern in James’s context.  James seems to be saying something like, “Stay resolute in this time of great urgency. Believe in God. Do not get carried away by your circumstances.”

My student was asking me whether it was wrong to struggle with faith. My answer is no.

That doesn’t mean you celebrate doubt or force it to appear. It just happens, and when it does, there are plenty of biblical moments to identify with.


  • I am an addict to drugs and alcohol. I confess that I was double-minded about becoming clean and sober. Until I hit bottom and there were no good choices left I had to make a leap of faith into a 12-step program of recovery. I was strung out and Beyond having hope that it would actually help me. But it was something to do while I waited to see if following the steps would actually equal recovery and what that would be for my life. When nothing is working in one’s life and all hope is gone regarding one’s own capability of saving oneself from deadly consequences of bad choices is when doubt loses its importance and ones priority list of things to consider in my humble opinion. What does one do when one is headed for a landing in a new place! Ground zero, ultimately one’s death, is moving faster and faster to smash one in the face? Here is a quote from “on being” program hosted by Krista Tippett interviewing Parker Palmer:
    MR. PALMER: Going into my experience of depression, I thought of the spiritual life as sort of climbing a mountain until you got to this high, elevated point where you could touch the hand of God or, you know, see a vision of wholeness and beauty. The spiritual life at that time had nothing to do, as far as I was concerned, with going into the valley of the shadow of death. Even though that phrase is right there at the heart of my own spiritual tradition, that wasn’t what it was about for me. So on one level, you think, ‘This is the least spiritual thing I’ve ever done.’ And the soul is absent, God is absent, faith is absent. All of the faculties that I depended on before I went into depression were now utterly useless.
    And yet, as I worked my way through that darkness, I sometimes became aware that way back there in the woods somewhere was this sort of primitive piece of animal life. I mean, just some kind of existential reality, some kind of core of being, of my own being, I don’t know, maybe of the life force generally, and that was somehow holding out the hope of life to me.
    I now see the soul as that wild creature way back there in the woods that knows how to survive in very hard places, knows how to survive in places where the intellect doesn’t, where the feelings don’t, and where the will cannot.

  • Frederick Buechner, “Whether your faith is that there is a God, or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

  • I always love reading your blogs! I love Harvey Cox’s The Future of Faith in regards to this which supports your third point. He says something like, faith is more of disposition, a orientation, a verb. He contrast belief vs. faith to explain what he sees having happen to Christianity. I believe he relays a story of someone who lost a loved one and struggled deeply with their belief in God for perhaps the first time. But, this person kept talking to God all the while and he described this as faith.

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