The Bible is a testimony from faith to faith. Therefore, it is not surprising that the word “doubt” appears only 11 times in the Revised Standard Version, three times in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, and eight times in the New Testament.
Sometimes, in both testaments, the word “doubt” is used in what we might call “secular” or “ordinary” circumstances. In Genesis 37, Jacob sees the robe he had given to his son Joseph torn and stained with blood, and he says, “It is my son’s robe; a wild beast has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” In Deuteronomy 28, Moses warns that if the people of Israel are not careful to do all the words of this law which are written in the book of the Law, in order that they may fear the LORD’s glorious and awful name, then the LORD will bring on them and their offspring extraordinary “afflictions and sickness” that are both “grievous and lasting.” Some of the afflictions and sicknesses will be like those they knew in Egypt, and but some will be new, so new that the threat of them is not even “recorded in the Book of this law.” So, too, the Lord will take delight in drastically reducing their numbers and scattering them among the nations so that:
“..your life shall hang in doubt before you; night and day you shall be in dread, and have no assurance of your life.”
It is clear from this text that those who “doubt” God live under a cloud of doubt, for they have “no assurances of (their lives).” As Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go, you have the words of Eternal life!” (John 6:68)
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus speaks of doubt on two different occasions. In Matthew 14, When Peter began to sink into the sea, Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And in Matthew 21 (CF Mark 11) when the disciples wonder that the fig tree he cursed has withered, Jesus says to them:
“Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and never doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will be done.”
In Romans 14, St. Paul seems to agree with Jesus that negative “doubt” is the opposite of positive “faith,” when he says that “everything that does not proceed from faith is sin.” And James 1 the apostle warns that those who lack wisdom and ask God for it must “ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.”
Obviously, there is a sense in which doubt is a bad thing, equal to faithlessness, and we ought always to avoid it, right? Not necessarily. Matthew uses the word doubt in the final chapter of his gospel. At the direction of the angel, the women found at the empty tomb, the eleven disciples have gone to a mountaintop in Galilee to see the Risen Lord, and there, they see him, “But some doubted!” What? The Resurrection is the central miracle of the Christian faith, the cornerstone of the New Testament. How can it be that the disciples themselves look full into the face of Jesus and “some doubted?”
A couple of points ought to be made:
1. The disciples do not doubt God. There is no hint that their faith in the Lord God of Israel has been shaken in the least.
2. The disciples do doubt their own experience. They had seen Jesus crucified, dead and buried. They could hardly believe that the radiant figure before them was he.
3. The disciples overcame their doubts, and this means an abundance of certitude for us. We value the testimony of those who were harder to convince. We value the testimony of “Doubting Thomas.” According to John 20, on the evening of that first Easter Day, the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Thomas’s doubt makes his eventual confession of the Risen Christ ring still more clearly/ “My Lord and my God!”, he said. Likewise, we value the testimony of Paul because he was first a persecutor of the church. In 1st Corinthians 15 he writes of his experience of the Risen Christ. He says, “Last of all, he appeared unto me, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God.” In the same way, the doubt of some of the disciples makes their dramatic turn to faith all the more critical. No doubt, this is a part of God’s plan. “…(to) convince some, who doubt.” (Jude 1:22)
Eventually, we must settle the matter of trusting “the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” We don’t want to limp along, with one foot in the camp of faith, and the other in the camp of doubt. When we do that we are unsettled and unsettling. However, we do want to exercise caution. We do not doubt God, but we do well to doubt much that others try to say about God. Many will be wrong. As St. John tells us:
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
The apostle’s advice is doubly good for today! We need a double share of wisdom and discernment. That is why doubt is one of the Wonderful Words of Life.