Doubt is not the same thing as unbelief. Unbelief is an act of the will that refuses to trust and obey Christ. Doubt is often asking questions or voicing uncertainty; and, it may well be from the standpoint of faith. And doubt which is smothered or ignored can often be the precursor of many problems in Christian experience. Doubt which is confessed and faced and fought through can be a growing thing in someone’s Christian experience.
Fifteen to twenty years ago, prominent figures in the missional movement began saying things like, “Our churches have to be safe places for doubters,” or “You should feel like you can come to our church with all of your doubts.” I always felt somewhat uncomfortable whenever I heard these statements—not because I think that our churches shouldn’t be safe place for people to express doubts, but because it seemed as if many were confusing the idea of doubt with the idea of unbelieving skepticism.
It is important to recognize that Scripture does not identity doubt with unbelieving skepticism. In fact, the most serious believers may have prolonged periods in which they struggle with doubt—a fact that the Gospel writers unfold in the account of John the Baptist’s doubts about the identity of Jesus while in prison.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus made the shocking assertion, “Among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist.” Christ praised John as having been “the burning and shining lamp” (John 5:35)—as one who poured himself out for the spiritual well-being of others. John’s ministry was marked by his selfless motivation to see Jesus exalted: “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30). John likened himself to the friend of the bridegroom, who, upon hearing the voice of Christ, rejoiced that the Bridegroom had come (John 3:29).
John had the unique privilege of standing and pointing to the Redeemer in the flesh and declaring, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). John joyfully encouraged his own disciples to leave him in order to follow after Jesus, when Christ began his ministry. John was content to exist for the glory and exaltation of Jesus (John 1:35-37). However, after Herod had locked John up in prison as retribution for rebuking him for his sexual immorality (Luke 3:19-20), John began to have doubts.
Here are four important things to remember if you are a doubting believer.
1. Even John the Baptist began to have doubts.
There are two possible explanations for these doubts. Either John was struggling with the suffering that he was enduring and couldn’t square it with the prophecies of the Messiah that he read about in the Old Testament prophets; or John was doubting the identity of Jesus because he wasn’t fulfilling John’s Old Testament expectation that the Messiah would come bringing salvation and judgment.