Thomas Was Not Judas

Counsel for Those Who Doubt

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Guest Contributor

What do you do when you are genuinely uncertain about your faith?

Some people deny that doubt can ever be sincere since general revelation makes God’s existence plain (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:19). But the Bible nowhere promises that God will be equally clear to every person at every moment.

Faith often involves moments of angst. Some coming into Christianity struggle deeply before finally breaking through. Many believers experience the “dark night of the soul” — moments or even seasons of anguish when the sense of God’s presence is removed. Think of the many psalms of lament (e.g., Psalm 22; Psalm 88) or C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. In my YouTube ministry, I’ve discovered that many younger people feel this way right now.

The world is filled with uncertainty and gnawing anxiety. Many people are open to believing in God, maybe even desiring to believe — but they still feel stuck in uncertainty. So, what do you do when your confidence about God is above 50 percent, but under 100 percent? Or how do you help a friend in this circumstance? Let me first offer some encouragement, and then some counsel.

Uncertainty Doesn’t Mean You’re Fake

In the church, we often struggle to know how to help doubters. Sometimes we give the impression that a genuine believer won’t have any doubts. But this approach doesn’t seem to be biblical. Some of the apostles themselves doubted — even while seeing the risen Jesus (Matthew 28:17)! And Jude 22 commands us to “have mercy on those who doubt.”

“God uses our uncertainty to produce humility in us, and along with it, an awareness of our need of God.”

If you struggle with doubts, remember: Thomas was not Judas. Thomas doubted, but Judas betrayed. These are not identical.

I do not say this to minimize the significance of your doubts. Some doubt is sinful, and almost all doubt is painful. In my observation, however, some believers are afflicted with an exquisite sense of shame and self-reproach about having doubts. As a result, they might keep them secret, and they might wonder if they don’t have true faith at all.

So, remember: genuine Christians in the Bible struggled with real doubt. And Thomas was not Judas. Don’t be harsher in evaluating your spiritual status than Scripture is. In fact, if we will continue to walk in the light to the best of our ability, God can actually use our uncertainty for good.

God Can Use Uncertainty for Good

There are many pieces of advice I give to those struggling with doubts. Having a friend to talk to is crucial, for example. So is keeping up spiritual disciplines (particularly prayer, Scripture reading, and corporate worship). Our spiritual life and our community powerfully shape and reinforce our beliefs. But here let me focus on one strategy that I believe is particularly neglected: we need to reflect theologically on our uncertainty. We need to develop a working framework for how to understand doubts and their role in our life.

When I was in college, I struggled with an acute sense of frustration at the uncertainty of life. I resonated with the emphasis in existential philosophy that we are hurled into existence, but simultaneously ill-equipped for existence. No one gives you an instruction manual when you are born!

One night in December 2005, I wrote this in my journal:

The only thing worse than the pain of life is its utter randomness. We are hurled into consciousness and struggle without any explanations or answers to accompany them. Life is like a test which we are forced to take, the answers to which are impossible for us to know. The blanks with which we fill in the questions of life are at best guesses, and usually merely unexamined prejudices. Life is like a battle which we are forced to fight, but the objective of which is unclear to us. We are hurled into the contest, but unsure of what is required of us. We sense that we must strive, but are unsure to what end we strive, or by what means. The great dilemma of life is not its failure or pain, but its uncertainty and chaos.

There was one thing, however, that never occurred to me: What if this very situation, and the struggle involved in it, has a purpose?

Pascal on the Hiddenness of God

A breakthrough came when I discovered that my struggle was not new. Some of the great Christian minds of the past had agonized over it. The great seventeenth-century thinker Blaise Pascal, for example, famously emphasized the hiddenness of God and the resulting anguish:

Nature has nothing to offer me that does not give rise to doubt and anxiety. If I saw no sign there of a Divinity I should decide on a negative solution: if I saw signs of a Creator everywhere I should peacefully settle down in the faith. But, seeing too much to deny and not enough to affirm, I am in a pitiful state. (Pensées 429, quoted in Christianity for Modern Pagans, 213)

But for Pascal, this very state of affairs exists for a reason. God uses our uncertainty to produce humility in us, and along with it, an awareness of our need of God: “It is not only right but useful for us that God should be partly concealed and partly revealed, since it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness as to know his wretchedness without knowing God” (Pensées 446, 249).

According to this way of thinking, if God immediately answered our every doubt, this would not be productive for us. We might know God but relate to him in pride and complacency, which would not actually touch our area of need in relation to God — namely, our sin and resistance to him. As Pascal writes elsewhere, “God wishes to move the will rather than the mind. Perfect clarity would help the mind and harm the will” (Pensées 234, 247).

Light for Those Who Wish to See

I realize this idea can be frustrating for people to hear. But think about it: How do we know that certainty is what we really need? If we are brutally honest, we will probably realize that we often fail to act on what we do know. Perhaps the nature of God’s revelation — partially hidden, yet manifest through creation, conscience, and Christ — is actually best suited to our true condition.

After all, God is interested not only that we believe in him, but how we believe. If he overpowered our resistance with frequent overt miracles, this would probably result in a “thin theism”: we would begrudgingly admit his existence while wishing it were not so. Meanwhile, for those who seek God, God has not left himself without testimony. Pascal is helpful again:

If God had wished to overcome the obstinacy of the most hardened, he could have done so by revealing himself to them so plainly that they could not doubt the truth of his essence, as he will appear on the last day. . . . This is not the way he wished to appear when he came in mildness, because so many men had shown themselves unworthy of his clemency, that he wished to deprive them of the good they did not desire. There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition. (Pensées 149, 69)

Walk in the Light You Have

In the meantime, what should we do? Pascal counsels us to make a choice. Make the best decision we can in light of what we do know. Make a wholehearted existential commitment to the truth as best as we can see it, walking in whatever light God has granted us, trusting that the remaining darkness will not last forever — that in fact God is at work through it.

So, Christian reader, when you struggle with uncertainty, do not lose heart. Keep pressing forward. God is at work in the midst of your struggle — and he will faithfully sustain you until the day you stand before him, face to face, with all uncertainty left behind forever.

(@gavinortlund) is a pastor, author, speaker, and apologist for the Christian faith. He is a husband to Esther, and a father to Isaiah, Naomi, Elijah, Miriam, and Abigail. He serves as President of Truth Unites and Theologian-in-Residence at Immanuel Church.