Monday, September 29, 2008

Faith, Doubt, + Unbelief

(by C.J. Mahaney)

Os Guinness is a fascinating man, blessed with an impressive mind, broad skill, and a unique biography and family heritage.

The Guinness family traces missionary roots back to a relative named Hudson Taylor—the famous missionary to China. Os’s great-great-grandfather founded the Guinness brewery and was a friend of William Wilberforce. His grandparents and parents were all missionaries. Os himself was born in China during World War II and lived there through the 1949 Communist Revolution. Os recalls living through the house arrest of his missionary parents and a widespread famine that claimed the lives of five million people. He shares more of his family and missionary background in a recent interview with my friend Mark Dever.

I’ve listened to this interview twice. It is both interesting and instructive. At the end of this interview, Mark says to Os, “I have as many questions as I had to begin with.” I don’t think I’ve heard Mark say that before (he certainly didn’t say this after he interviewed me!).

Os has worked alongside Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri, as a freelance reporter for the BBC, and as Guest Scholar and Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He has edited or written over 20 books on a broad range of topics. Listening to this interview reminded me of how I have benefited from the writings of Os Guinness over the years.

In Two Minds

Today I want to draw attention to Os Guinness’s helpful teaching on the topic of doubt.

At one point in the interview, Mark asked him about the purpose of his book In Two Minds: The Dilemma of Doubt and How to Resolve It (IVP, 1976). Guinness responded: “Well, I myself didn’t have a lot of the doubts described in the book, but I met so many people who were either ashamed, embarrassed, or felt guilty about doubting. And I wanted to relieve them of that. Doubt is not the same as unbelief. You have faith in Christ, which is sure of Christ, and you have unbelief which, sadly, is not sure of Christ. And doubt is a halfway house. And all the languages of the world as well as the Scriptures had this idea of doubt in two minds. So like a coin spinning it will come down heads or tails. It has got to be resolved, but you don’t need to feel bad about doubt. You just need to resolve it.”

This recent interview led me to pick up again my old, yellowing, and well-worn copy of In Two Minds. By the pen markings throughout the book and the dog-eared pages I’m reminded that Guinness has a lot of excellent points on this topic.

“I Believe in Doubt”

That’s the title of the first chapter. In it, we get a big-picture of why it’s important to properly understand doubt, even to understand the potential of doubts to bring us deeper in our communion with God! Guinness writes,
“Christianity places a premium on the absolute truthfulness and trustworthiness of God, so understanding doubt is extremely important to a Christian. Of course, faith is much more than the absence of doubt, but to understand doubt is to have a key to a quiet heart and a quiet mind. Anyone who believes anything will automatically know something about doubt. But the person who knows why he believes is also in a position to discover why he doubts. The Christian should be such a person.

Not only does a Christian believe, he is a person who ‘thinks in believing and believes in thinking,’ as Augustine expressed it. The world of Christian faith is not a fairy-tale, make-believe world, question-free and problem-proof, but a world where doubt is never far from faith's shoulder.

Consequently, a healthy understanding of doubt should go hand in hand with a healthy understanding of faith. We ourselves are called in question if we have no answer to doubt. If we constantly doubt what we believe and always believe-yet-doubt, we will be in danger of undermining our personal integrity, if not our stability. But if ours is an examined faith, we should be unafraid to doubt. If doubt is eventually justified, we were believing what clearly was not worth believing. But if doubt is answered, our faith has grown stronger still. It knows God more certainly and it can enjoy God more deeply.” (pp. 15-16).

In the next chapter, Guinness steps back and asks a fundamental question: What is doubt? After a detailed explanation of the five senses of the word he summarizes the many sides of doubt. “If a person is ‘torn’ between options, unable to ‘make up’ his mind, or if he is ‘up in the air’ over something and unsure which side he should ‘come down on,’ or if he is furiously ‘debating’ with himself or ‘hanging back,’ or weighing up his ‘reservations,’ he is nothing if not ‘in two minds.’ This is the essence of doubt” (p. 27).

And doubt looks very differently in each of our lives.
“Problems strike us all differently. What is trivial to one person may raise titanic questions for someone else. Some people face doubt only if they find no answer; others trigger doubts merely by raising questions. What puzzles a philosopher and taxes his mind to distraction may look completely irrelevant or quite obvious to a businessman. The point is not to judge who is right, but to meet and resolve whatever doubt is a problem to a particular person” (p. 32).

No matter what level of doubt we face, living in constant doubt is not where we want to live our lives. But neither should be automatically feel guilty and sinful for all doubting thoughts. The reality is that doubt is inevitable in the Christian life. Guinness writes, “In the same way assurance of faith depends on our grasp of God and his faithfulness and not on a mastery of all the doubts that are ever likely to assail us. Otherwise faith could never be assured while one last doubt remained” (p. 33).

But there is danger in long-term doubt. Chronic doubt leads to serious consequences. “For the Christian, doubt is not the same as unbelief, but neither is it divorced from it. Continued doubt loosens the believer's hold on the resources and privileges of faith and can be the prelude to the disasters of unbelief. So doubt is never treated as trivial” (p. 31). Later he writes, “If faith does not resolve doubt, doubt will dissolve faith” (p. 187). Guinness warns us never to lessen the significance of doubt (especially lingering doubt) in our hearts.

Confronting Doubts

So how do we effectively confront doubt? We need to remember that the “largest part of doubting comes simply from ignorance of what God has said and done” (pp. 34-35). The cure for doubt is preventative—we cultivate an active and vibrant life of faith in what God has said and done.
“What is more, faith, like health, is best maintained by growth, nourishment and exercise and not by fighting sickness. Sickness may be the absence of health, but health is more than the absence of sickness, so prevention is better than cure. Equally, faith grows and flourishes when it is well nourished and exercised, so the best way to resist doubt is to build up faith rather than simply to fight against doubt” (pp. 33-34).
Much of In Two Minds is dedicated to the topic and excellent quotes abound. Here is one—“We do not trust God because he guides us; we trust and then are guided, which means that we can trust God even when we do not see guided by him. Faith may be in the dark about guidance, but it is never in the dark about God” (p. 261). In fact, “God proves not only better to us than our worst fears but better to us than our wildest dreams” (p. 184).

In fact, how we handle doubt is largely a reflection of the health of our faith because “since the object of Christian faith is God, to believe or disbelieve is everything. Thus the market value of doubt for the Christian is extremely high. Find out how seriously a believer takes his doubts and you have the index of how seriously he takes his faith” (p. 31).


I think pastors would be wise to assume that members of their churches are familiar with doubt in their thinking and personal experience. And I’m especially aware of this in the lives of high school and college students, and surprisingly even in new converts. Often these individuals wrongly associate doubt with unbelief, and therefore experience shame, embarrassment, and guilt over the very presence of doubts in their hearts.

In my perspective, it would be wise for pastors at some point to address this topic and provide excellent supplemental materials to address the topic of doubt.

UPDATE: In Two Minds is in print! The book was republished by Crossway under the title God in the Dark: The Assurance of Faith Beyond a Shadow of Doubt (Crossway, 1996).

Book reviews Doubt Faith Unbelief


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