As we continue our series on the disciplines that the Christian should incorporate into his character, we would like to take a look at The Discipline of Doubt. As we have pointed out in previous articles in this series, these are called “disciplines” because they are not acquired without deliberate effort. Discipline is “training that corrects molds or perfects the mental faculties or moral character” (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, p. 360).
We have been using, as an anchor for this series, a book by V. Raymond Edman published in 1948 titled The Disciplines of Life. Although Mr. Edman was associated with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and I don’t agree with everything he wrote, many of the things he has written resonate with me.
As he begins the chapter on Doubt, Edman says, “Doubt, like dismal, dank darkness, settles down upon our spirit; and benumbed with bewilderment, we know no what to do nor what road to take. Doubt, like deep seated disease, gnaws ceaselessly, remorselessly at the vitals of our convictions and conscience; and dizzy with dismay, we falter and faint. We doubt ourselves and our friends, our background, and our future, our experience and the facts thereof, our faith in the Bible and the God it presents. Doubt defeats, discourages, destroys. ” (p. 229).
Edman compares doubt with faith saying, “By way of sharp contrast, faith builds, lifts. Lightens, strengthens. ‘The just shall live by faith’ (Hebrews 10:38; Romans 1:17). Faith brings lilt of laughter for sighing of sorrow, light of life for darkness of despair, strength of spirit for faltering of fear, balm of blessing for hunger of heart. They who believe are blessed: happy, joyous, steady, strong, whose resources are from unfailing springs of refreshing.” (IBID).
Edman illustrates this discipline from the life of John the Baptist that caused him to ask Jesus, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3). Edman questions what it was that caused John to ask this question, despite having other evidences that indicate that “John knew beyond shadow of doubt that Jesus was the Christ, the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world…” (John 1:29-34). The commentator Adam Clarke offers this comment on the passage, “A third opinion takes a middle course between the two former, and states that, though John was at first perfectly convinced that Jesus was the Christ, yet, entertaining some hopes that he would erect a secular kingdom in Judea, wished to know whether this was likely to take place speedily. It is very probable that John now began, through the length of his confinement, to entertain doubts, relative to his kingdom, which perplexed and harassed his mind; and he took the most reasonable way to get rid of them at once, viz. by applying to Christ himself” (Adam Clarkes Bible Commentary, p. 6578). To add some perspective, it may be worth noting that John had been in prison for about twelve months when he sent his disciples to Jesus with this inquiry.
As we think about the discipline of doubt, let us consider some factors that might cause us to begin to doubt things that we have previously held onto as bedrock truth. Let us also consider the steps that would bring us back from this doubt to faith.
What May Cause Doubt to Rise Up in Us
The Loss of Health
When we can no longer do the things we once did with ease, because of age or disease, our faith can be tried and we may begin to doubt God’s provision for us. I love this quote from Angela Perritt, “Your doubts do not trouble God. He is not surprised by them nor do they make Him pull away from you. When you find yourself struggling with doubt, you find yourself among some of the “Greats” in the Bible like Job, Abraham, Sarah, Gideon, and Thomas, just to name a few. Job doubted God’s goodness when his children died and his livelihood was gone. Abraham and Sarah doubted God’s promise as they grew older and found themselves still without a child of their own. Gideon doubted God could use a man like him to fight his upcoming battle. And of course, our beloved Thomas, he doubted Jesus rose from the dead…” (https://lovegodgreatly.com/when-we-struggle-with-doubt/)
Psalm 77 is a community lament describing an earnest prayer coming from a troubled heart. It acknowledges that the reason for the trouble may be some fault of the people. David laments to the Lord, “In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord; My hand was stretched out in the night without ceasing; My soul refused to be comforted. 3 I remembered God, and was troubled;
I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed. Selah 4 You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. 5 I have considered the days of old, The years of ancient times. 6 I call to remembrance my song in the night; I meditate within my heart, And my spirit makes diligent search. 7 Will the Lord cast off forever? And will He be favorable no more? 8 Has His mercy ceased forever? Has His promise failed forevermore? 9 Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has He in anger shut up His tender mercies? Selah” (Psalms 77:2-9)
And here is an article by Kathryn Butler that I thought so good that I have quoted it in its entirety.
If God Doesn’t Heal You
“Weeks of chemotherapy eroded the lining of her mouth, mangled her immune system, and culminated in an hours-long surgery to carve out a tumor the size of a grapefruit.
Throughout, friends and loved ones lifted up a heartfelt but singular prayer: Heal her, Lord. She wrapped herself in their words as if girding herself in armor. Afterward, she pointed to a line on the pathology report that described dead cells at the center of the tumor, and she praised God for his mercy. She reasoned that the chemotherapy had killed the tumor before her surgeon ever put knife to skin, and the healing for which she prayed was at hand.
But those dead cells didn’t promise cure. Rather, they indicated a cancer so aggressive that blood vessels could not tunnel to its center. The tumor was growing so rapidly that it could not support its own middle. Months later, the cancer not only returned, but spread, clogging her lungs and dotting her brain.
Reeling in Grief
As the delicate balance of her organ systems teetered and collapsed, prayers for a cure became more ardent, from her church as well as from her own lips. Her doctors recommended home hospice, but she clung to her conviction that God must melt away her disease, and insisted upon last-ditch chemotherapy instead. Still, the cancer continued its deadly march. Fluid ballooned her limbs and saturated her lungs. One awful night, with ICU alarms sounding her elegy, her heart quivered and lurched to a stop.
“Although God can heal us, we must never presume that he must.”
Wholly unprepared to lose her, her family reeled in grief. They agonized over how to endure without her, and struggled to reconcile this flickering out of a beloved, faithful life, against their continual appeals to God for cure. How had this happened? They lamented. Had God noticed their prayers? Had he even listened? Did they not pray enough? Was their faith too meager? How could God ignore her, when she was so faithful to him?
God made heaven and earth, catapulted the planets into motion, and assembled the scaffolding of our cytoplasm. Surely, he could also eradicate our cancer, realign our bones, or restore blood flow to areas that mottle.
A Thorn for Now
God can and does heal. In my own clinical practice, he used a patient’s improbable recovery to draw me to himself. Throughout Jesus’s ministry, he performed miraculous healings that glorified God and deepened faith (Matthew 4:23; Luke 4:40). The Bible encourages us to pray in earnest (Luke 18:1–8; Philippians 4:4–6). If the Spirit moves us to pray for healing, whether for ourselves or our neighbors, we should do so with fervor.
Yet while we pray, we must attend to a critical distinction: although God can heal us, we must never presume that he must. Death is the consequence of the fall (Romans 6:23). It overtakes us all, and most commonly recruits illness as its vehicle. When Christ returns, no disease will blot God’s creation (Revelation 21:4), but for now, we wait and groan as our bodies wither. We may perceive our healing to be the greatest good, but God’s wisdom surpasses even the most impressive reaches of our understanding (Isaiah 55:8). We cannot bend his will to resemble our own.
Time and again the Bible depicts instances when God does not immediately eradicate suffering, but rather engages with it for good (Genesis 50:20; John 11:3–4; Romans 5:3–5). “A thorn was given me in the flesh,” the apostle Paul writes of his own physical affliction. “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:7–9). God responded to Paul’s prayers for healing not by curing him, but rather by working through Paul’s suffering to draw him nearer to his glory. In the most exquisite example, through his suffering and death, Christ redeems us from our sins and pours grace out upon us (Romans 3:23–25; Ephesians 1:7).
A Heartbeat to Heaven
When we ignore God’s work in suffering, and cleave breathlessly only to our hope for a cure, we forsake opportunities for closure, fellowship, and spiritual preparation at the end of life. Research warns that those of us within a religious community are more likely to pursue aggressive measures at the end of life, and more likely to die in an ICU.
If we set our eyes only on a cure, rather than on the reality of our physical mortality, we may chase after treatments that not only fail to save us, but which also rob us of our capacities to think, communicate, and pray in our final days. We forget that if our healing is not within God’s will, we will need fortitude, peace, and discernment to endure. And if cure does not come, a single-minded focus on healing strands ourselves and those we love with unsettling doubts about the validity of our faith.
The gospel offers a hope that exceeds the reparation of our bodies. This side of the cross, even as our vision darkens and the world closes in, we need not fear death. Christ has overcome, and through his resurrection death has lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55–57). Death is but a momentary breath, a transition, a heartbeat before we reunite with our risen Lord (2 Corinthians 4:17–18). In the wake of the cross, death is not the end. Through Christ’s sacrifice for us, through God’s overflowing and sufficient grace, we have spiritual healing to sustain us through eternity, even while our current bodies warp and break.
Pray for More
When life-threatening illness strikes, by all means pray for healing if the Spirit so moves you. But also pray that, if cure is not according to God’s will, he might equip you and your loved ones with strength, clarity, and discernment. Pray he might grant us all peace to endure — through the pain, through the infirmity, with eyes cast heavenward even as fear drives us to our knees. Pray that as the shadows encroach, and the light within us dwindles, that the light of the world might illuminate our minds and hearts, drawing us toward himself in our final moments on this earth. Pray we would know in our hearts that our end on this earth is by no means the end.
However dark death seems, it is fleeting and transient, a mere breath before the eternal life to come.”
Note: Kathryn Butler is a trauma and critical care surgeon turned writer and homeschooling mom. She is author of Glimmers of Grace: A Doctor’s Reflections on Faith, Suffering, and the Goodness of God. She and her family live north of Boston.
The Loss of Happiness
“The loss of happiness can dig deep into the human spirit. Like John we have known the sweetness of human fellowship, the strength of human love, the satisfaction of service rendered unto the Saviour and our fellow men, yet for beauty of bountiful blessing we have ashes of anguish and absence, for strength through oil of His joy we have weakness through multiplied mourning, for praise caused by His providence and protection we have heaviness and hopelessness and helplessness. Our soul has entered into iron; lover and friend are far from us; and we seek to fathom the fearful shadows by crying, ‘Art thou he, or look we for another?’”(Edman, pp. 231-232).
The Loss of Hope
The loss of hope can cause one to despair. We may encounter people and events in our lives “whose incessant blows leave us bruised, bloody, beaten. We stagger to rise and shake off our doubts and fears, but to what end, and by what means? There is no hope, we say to ourselves; rather, we concur with the poet: ‘Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne’ (Edman. P. 232).
The Loss of Holiness
“The loss of holiness can also bring us into the darkness of despair and doubt…. Often … in human experience we find that unbelief does have a moral cause. We know the will of God, yet we desire our own way. We sense the conviction of the Spirit because of our wrong, but we love our sin. We are dark of mind because we are hard of heart. We doubt because we disobey. We run through red lights of warning – moral, physical, spiritual; and find ourselves doubting the mercy of the Most High because of our own willfulness and waywardness. We stumble because we sin, even though we know, ‘He that covereth his sins shall not prosper; but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy’ (Prov. 28:13) (Edman, pp. 232-233).
What Steps Will Bring Us Back from Doubt to Faith
Step 1: Bring Our Plight to Jesus
We must turn from self, from sin, from weakness and from weariness to Him. We sometimes sing about the importance of bringing everything to Jesus and keeping our eyes on him as we go through trials in this life. The words of the beautiful song, Open Our Eyes, written by Robert Cull and copyrighted by Maranatha Music! says:
Open our eyes, Lord,
we want to see Jesus,
To reach out and touch Him,
and say that we love Him.
Open our ears, Lord,
and help us to listen.
Open our eyes, Lord,
we want to see Jesus.
Open our hearts Lord,
We want to know Jesus,
To follow and trust Him,
And show that we love Him.
Open our minds, Lord,
To think of His goodness,
Open our eyes Lord,
We want to see Jesus.
Step 2: Believe the Evidence He Presents
“To John He sent word of His deeds and words; to Thomas He stated, ‘Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands … be not faithless, but believing’ (John 20:27). Believe what He has done for you and for others down through the ages. His Word has stood the test of the centuries, and will stand the caustic criticism others may now be casting at it. God’s mercy is new each morning, and is everlasting; His grace is sufficient, His faithfulness will not fail. He tries His children but does not tempt them to despair; He burns the dross from their life as does a refiner of silver, but He does not abandon them. Believe His power to strengthen you, His presence to help you, His peace to keep you, His providence to care for you” (Edman, p. 234)
Step 3: Believe His Word
“Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). The Lord Jesus answered the thrusts of doubt from the Tempter, ‘If thou be the Son of God … ‘with ringing, ‘Thus saith the Lord, It is written … it is written’ (Matthew 4:3-11). To take one’s stand on the Word of God, to believe what He has promised, all appearance to the contrary notwithstanding, to be steadfast, unmovable, unafraid, to ignore the insinuations that cast clever and calculated criticisms against the God character of the God of all grace, is to find oneself strong in the Lord. Believe your beliefs that are founded upon the Word, and doubt your doubts that come from disease, despair, disappointment, or disobedience” (Edman, pp. 234-235).
As Edman closes this chapter on the discipline of doubt, he says, “Doubt paralyzes; faith vitalizes. Doubt defeats, faith triumphs. Doubt destroys; faith makes alive. To the evidences that will come to your tested and trusting soul there will be the response of Thomas, ‘My Lord and my God’; and you will be partaker of the blessing to the unoffended, who ‘have not seen, and yet believed.”(John 20:28-29). Honest doubt, faced by the Word of God and faith, will discipline your heart and mind to bring you into deeper devotion and assurance” (p. 235).
Thanks for reading.
(Source: The Disciplines of Life by V. Raymond Edman, pp. 229 – 235)