DOUBT VERSUS UNBELIEF
by David Jenkins
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DOUBT VERSUS UNBELIEF
That might seem to be a strange title for a sermon. After all, you might ask, are not doubt and unbelief the same thing? Well let me quote from a Christian writer:
“There is a difference between doubt and unbelief. Doubt is a matter of the mind. Unbelief is a matter of the heart. Doubt is when we cannot understand what God is doing and why He is doing it. Unbelief is when we refuse to believe God’s Word and do what He tells us to do. We must not confuse the two.” ( When We Doubt by Greg Laurie http://bibleportal.Christianpost.Com )
Of course the diametric opposite of unbelief is faith, but doubt is somewhere in between. Sometimes it seem very similar to unbelief, but at other times it seems to be an essential component of faith. Are you confused already? Well, let my try to clear up the confusion:
To doubt something is to be in a wavering state of mind. You hesitate between two opinions. You are not quite sure which is right. You would like to take the right path but you are not absolutely certain which is the right one. That is doubt. In the New Testament the Greek word used here means “to be uncertain, to waver or to hesitate”.
I think this was the state of mind of Thomas when the other disciples told him they had seen the risen Lord. He wanted to believe that what they were saying was right, but it seemed to good to be true. Thomas doubted what the others had told him – he thought they were suffering from hallucinations. They so wanted it to be true that they imagined it all. But Thomas wanted hard evidence – he wanted to see with his own eyes and touch with his own hands. And amazingly Jesus gave Thomas what he wanted – hard evidence! Then Thomas responded with what I consider to be the greatest expression of faith in the whole of the Gospels:
“My Lord and my God”. ( John 20:28 )
Thomas had been in a wavering state, somewhere between unbelief and faith. Jesus had warned him not to be unbelieving – indicating possibly that although Thomas was not an unbeliever there was a danger of him sinking into unbelief if he continued in his doubt.
UNFAITHFULNESS TO GOD
Now the word used for unbelief in the Greek indicates a complete lack of faith. It is the opposite of faith. But it can also mean “unfaithful” in the sense of unreliable or untrue. You will recall how often in the Old Testament the nation of Israel turned away from the Living God and worshipped idols. The prophets describe this as spiritual adultery. It was as if the nation was being unfaithful to her husband, the Lord, with other partners, other gods. This is how the Old Testament prophets viewed unbelief. It wasn’t just not committing oneself to God – it was being unfaithful to him with other gods. It was turning from the Lord you knew, who had rescued your nation from slavery in Egypt and worshipping the false gods of the nations.
And that is what unbelief is. It’s not just doubting God, it’s not just disbelieving in his existence. It is a conscious turning away from him. It is worshipping other gods and other things. (People can worship money, or science, or art, or culture, or sport, or pop stars, or celebrity – there are many false gods.) Unbelief is very different and far worse than mere doubt.
UNBELIEF IN NAZARETH
In Mark’s Gospel we read how Jesus was rejected when he went to preach in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth ( Mark 6:1-6). The people there did not believe in him as Messiah, as Lord, as Saviour. He could do very few healing miracles in that town because of their unbelief. These people acknowledged that Jesus had performed miracles but they said, “Where did he get this power from? Isn’t he just Mary’s son? Don’t we know his brothers? Don’t his sisters live in this very town? We know all about Jesus – he’s not the Messiah. We went to school with him! It’s just Jesus the son of Mary and Joseph.” And so they dismissed what he was doing and his whole mission.
And Jesus marvelled at their unbelief. Usually we read of him marvelling at people’s faith – the Centurion whole believed in his power, the Syrophoenecian woman whose child was in the grip of an evil power, the woman who touched the hem of his robe. Jesus marvelled at their faith. But in Nazareth he marvelled at the unbelief of the people. These people didn’t just doubt Jesus – they rejected him, they did not believe his message or follow him. No wonder he could do very few miracles there! For this is what unbelief does. It limits the working of God’s power in our situation.
THE NON BELIEVER
Today the nonbeliever is very much at the fore in the media and in the world of entertainment. It is now “cool” for comedians, for example, to say they are atheists. They say there is no God, no higher power, no life to come after the grave. And so they mock at religion and especially at Christianity ( I don’t notice much mocking of Islam though).
When a person says dogmatically, “There is no God. I know for certain that is true”, then that person is an unbeliever, not just a doubter. They see the wonder of the universe and they don’t ascribe it to God. They see human acts of love and sacrifice and they don’t see how this love has come from God. They are absolute believers in the non-existence of God, and nothing will shake their faith in that! You see, it requires just as much faith to be a unbeliever as to be a believer. The believer believes in God, whereas the unbeliever stakes his very soul on the non-existence of God! But what if he is wrong?
The agnostic is the only one who does not require faith to maintain his position. He says, “I can’t prove one way or another whether there is a God so I will say I don’t know.” Now, from one point of view that is a rational position. It is the scientific viewpoint. Science can not prove nor disprove God. In fact, science has nothing to say about God, or about any spiritual matters. But man can not live by science alone – rationality is not the be-all and end-all of life. We all have to live by faith in something. We all know there are spiritual realities even if we do not acknowledge them.
I think there is room for honest doubt in the Christian life. Oswald Chambers said, “Doubt is not always a sign that a man is wrong. It may be a sign that he is thinking.”
Yes, facing doubt honestly can help us move onward to faith. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that faith which has not been tested by doubt is no real faith at all.
So honest doubt is a kind of half-way house, a stage we may have to pass through as we move onward to faith. This is not the same as unbelief but there is a danger it might lead to unbelief. Like Thomas we must not stay in that half-way house. You cannot sit on the fence for ever. You have to move on to faith in something. Now, is it going to be faith in God and in his Son Jesus the Messiah, or is it going to be faith in something else – in the non-existence of God.
I know in whom I want to believe - Jesus, the perfect man, the only truly wise and loving person who has ever lived. Yes, I will chose to follow him rather than Marx, or Darwin, or Dawkins. I will chose to follow Jesus rather than Buddha, or Muhamed or Krishna. I will put Jesus before Moses and the Prophets. I will follow him, for he is the Son of God. Like Thomas I will say, “My Lord and my God!”
Let’s think for a moment about the raising of Lazarus. Imagine you are one of those living in Jerusalem at the that time and you hear the story of Lazarus coming back to life. After four days in the tomb it seems incredible – dead men don’t come back to life! So you don’t belive it. This is rational doubt, sensible scepticism. Not knowing that Jesus is the Son of God, you are quite right to question these stories of resurrection.
But imagine now you are one of the people who actually witness the miracle. You actually see Lazarus come out of the tomb. You see the bandages being unwound around him. You see him move and you hear him talk. If you then refuse to believe in Jesus and to follow him, that is not doubt, it is unbelief!
You might think this is all a bit too far-fetched. No one would refuse to believe in Jesus if they saw his miracles, would they? Well, what about Judas?
And what about the religious leaders of the day. What about these words from John’s Gospel?
Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. What are we accomplishing? They asked. Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.
…. So from that day on they plotted to take his life.
(John 11:45-48, 53)
These Jewish religious leaders had eye-witness testimony of the raising of Lazarus. They knew it was a mighty miracle, and they plotted to kill Jesus! This is unbelief and it is also so crazy, so deluded. Only Satan can produce such madness in the human heart – to hear about a miracle of resurrection and then try to kill the man who did it! Insane! Didn’t it occur to them that the same power which raised Lazarus might also raise Jesus?
But it is satanic, and the sin of Satan himself was to think he could take over God’s throne and rule the universe. What was he thinking of? Did he imagine he could defeat God who had created him? Did Satan think he could kill God?. Yes, it is madness for any being, angelic or human, to contemplate opposing the Creator and Lord of the universe.
But to go back to our distinction between unbelief and doubt: I don’t believe God will condemn anyone for their honest doubts. Thomas was rebuked gently but not condemned for his doubt. And Jesus graciously put in an appearance so as to dispel Thomas’ doubts.
Remember also how on one occasion Jesus healed the son of a man who had wavering faith? The man said, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief! “ ( Mark 9:24)
This man wasn’t refusing to believe. He was just in an agony of uncertainty. He deeply wanted to believe, he wanted Jesus to heal his son. But doubts were crowing in on him. And so he cried out with these words, “Help me overcome my unbelief!” he wasn’t actually an unbeliever but he felt he was being dragged backwards in that direction. And Jesus healed his son – casting out an evil spirit. This man’s cry for help is the key to all this. Where do we look for our help when we are in doubt?
Job, in the Old Testament, when he was in deepest turmoil, when he was sorely attacked, even while he reproached God, turned to God. He reproached God but he did not turn away. He did not “curse God and die” as his wife urged him too. ( Job 2:9-10 ) Job’s wife is a perfect example of unbelief, whereas Job is an example of that kind of doubt which lead to greater faith.
The life of faith is a journey, a pilgrimage. The important thing is not whether we have yet achieved perfect faith. No, the important question is, “Which direction are you going in – towards God or away from him?”
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