I often joke with my friends that I have the “gift” of doubt. Though it is a gift I haven’t really wanted, in some ways it has served me well. Doubt has kept my conversation with God authentic as life’s “unexplainables” press in. Why does the church keep splitting, fighting, and judging when Jesus prayed so hard for its unity? Where is the Creator of time when a friend diagnosed with stage 4 cancer has to wait four weeks for chemo to begin? And why on earth are believers often known more for what they are against rather than for doing justice, and loving mercy, and walking humbly with God?
For starters, I don’t know how to live in the world and not question and wonder about God, faith, doubt, dogma, and practice. I connect with the father who wasn’t quite sure Jesus could heal his son but asked him anyway:
“If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” And Jesus said to him, “‘If You can?’ All things are possible for him who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father cried out and said, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:22–24, NASB)
A father riddled with fear and doubt—“I do believe; help my unbelief”—still threw the whole weight of his desire and longing on Jesus. And Jesus counts the imperfect, fear-laced request for help as evidence of faith! Why? Faith is not the same thing as knowing something absolutely. God alone sees all dimensions. Only God knows absolutely. We always know in part. That’s why faith is different from certainty—faith is a risk.
The author of Hebrews writes, “Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see” (11:1). Our confidence, assurance, and conviction are about things we hope for and do not see. Ultimately, risking on God, hope, and what we can’t see is the nature of faith.
This is my reality. My finite brain is too small to understand earthly—let alone heavenly—realities. When my own understanding gives way, I will have to get through this life by either risking on God or myself. Whichever way I risk, it is an act of faith. Risk is the other side of the coin of trust; without risk we never build trust.
As I read the Gospels, Jesus often counts risks as faith. He counts as trust things that I might count as doubt or superstition or abject fear.
Stories of Faith
There are several stories in the Bible about times when someone’s faith is challenged and stretched to its limits. One woman who’d endured 12 years of gynecological misery thought sneaking up to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe just might heal her (Luke 8:43–48). Does expecting someone’s clothes to heal you sound like superstition or faith? Jesus tells the woman: “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace.” In this case, taking a secret sort of risk on Jesus can count as faith.
In Mark 5:36–42, Jesus says to a father who just heard his daughter has died, “Don’t be afraid; just believe” (NIV). Just believe? Asking a father to believe his dead child is alive is asking for the moon. But with dread and fear, the father holds on and takes Jesus home. The dead girl’s house is filled with mourners who laugh at Jesus for saying, “The child is not dead.” Still, Jesus leans over the girl and, like a parent rousing a child awake, says, “Little girl, get up!” Sure enough, she’s not dead! It seems risking on Jesus can be better than risking on the facts. What do you have to lose?
When the disciples are terrified they are going to drown in a sudden squall, they wake Jesus with these words: “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re going to drown?” (Mark 4:35–41) This doesn’t sound like faith to me—or to Jesus, for that matter. Yet Jesus speaks to the wind and waves and says: “Silence! Be still!” A moment later the disciples sat soaking wet on a calm sea. Then Jesus asks, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” What a blow! “No faith.” What is a show of faith when you are scared to death? How about not being certain that Jesus doesn’t care? How about: “Help! Help! Help!”
These stories make it clear that faith is nuanced; it can exist in the presence of fear and doubt. Faith doesn’t take certainty—it takes risking on Jesus. When we risk on Jesus, love, trust, confidence, assurance, and faith grow.
Still, it’s not the size of our faith that accomplishes things. Jesus claims faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains (Matthew 17:20). I have doubts about this. I have at times prayed fervently for my personal mountains to move and can’t see that anything budged. But God must give me confidence and assurance that something shifts when I pray because I keep praying and risking on Jesus. At any moment of any day, I could start believing my doubts, but the fact that I don’t is miraculous to me. It is evidence of things not seen. Faith keeps risking that God is at work in everything for my good, my growth, and God’s glory.
Believing God's Wisdom, Not Our Fears
This is all well and good, but then there is James—particularly James 1:6–8, which can be unnerving. James writes that when we ask for wisdom, we “must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind . . . double-minded and unstable” (NIV). I ask for wisdom all the time because I know I don’t have the wisdom it takes to lead a church, or to use my privilege for the good of others, or to be the person my family and friends need me to be. I need wisdom. Is it doubt when I wonder if God will give it?
Has someone ever asked for your wisdom? A kid asks, “Hey, Mom, what do you think about my going out for lacrosse?” A friend asks, “Do you think I should move across the country to take a job?” You do your best, you give your advice, and you wait to see what they choose. How do you feel when your advice isn’t taken and when your wisdom is doubted?
God gives wisdom, but James seems to indicate there is always the possibility of believing our fears and our doubts rather than God’s wisdom and goodness. After all, God’s ways are not our ways. Believing our fears and doubts is where “double-mindedness” comes in. Believing our fears and doubts can launch us into catastrophic thinking, knee-jerk reactions, and quick fixes. When the Evil One can get us to trust our fears and doubts rather than risk on God, we still have faith—it is just double-minded faith in ourselves.
Faith is not the opposite of doubt. Faith is a choice to not believe my doubts. I refuse to trust my own limited bit of insight on this world. And I risk that God is working for my good, my growth, and divine glory, no matter what is happening to me. My faith doesn’t have to look powerful and strong. It can ask hard questions like, “My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me?” Still, Jesus’ question was linked to risking on “my God.” We use the word my for our most intimate relationships: “my husband,” “my sweet girl,” “my friend.” My questions and doubts will not be solved in this life—but they all find their home and a listening ear in the God who is “my God.”
Recently a young man said to me: “I don’t care what people say they believe. I will know what they believe when I see their checkbook and what they do in the world.” Faith isn’t just our dogma and words—it is the way we live our lives for the sake of God and others.
Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief. I’d rather risk on you than myself. I’d rather risk on bringing in Jesus’ kingdom than my own. I’d rather risk my privilege than use it all for me. I’m not sure of many things, but every day I risk that if I breathe deep and lean hard, God’s love holds.
Adele Ahlberg Calhoun has worked in Christian ministry for more than 30 years and is currently copastor, with her husband, Doug, of Redeemer Community Church in Needham, Massachusetts. Her most recent books include Invitations from God and the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook.