Revival and Reformation

Certainty and doubt

Valentin Zywietz, MA,  pastors a church district in upper Styria, Austria.

As pastors, we must sometimes closely engage with theological issues that arise in our churches. Recently, while I was somewhat convinced that my position, which also represented the official view of the church, was correct, I realized I was not very familiar with the arguments from the other side. When I reviewed the literature of my opponents, I started to form doubts about my position.

Even though there was strong evidence for my view, some Bible texts, along with some highly recommended authors, seemed to accommodate their view better than mine. Furthermore, with a few theological and linguistic gymnastics, they seemed to be able to explain away quite a few of my “proof texts”—though not all, and not very convincingly. Could it be that I was wrong? That would be embarrassing! If so, what would the consequences be?

I realized that both internal and external pressures drove me toward simply defending my original position. I also realized that I could not simply succumb to those pressures. Why? First, it would be somewhat dishonest, and second, as a pastor, I routinely ask people to change their views based on new biblical information I present to them. How could I expect them to do what I was not willing to do?

I was forced to wrestle with my doubts. I was, of course, reminded of the famous passage in James 1:5–8: “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (NRSV).

But what kind of doubt is James referring to? Was it the kind that I had? Should I have acted like Paul (Gal. 1:8, 9), dismissing any theory that contradicts my established beliefs? To have doubts cannot just mean to be uncertain of something. Why would I need to pray for further wisdom if I was already comfortably settled on every question?

It was only after several study-filled days that I came across what seemed to be a solution to almost all of the “difficult” passages. With it, my doubts and perplexities washed away. I came to see that in the James 1:5–8 passage, the doubter, being double-minded, must be a person who is dealing with uncertainty not only regarding a particular belief but also regarding whether he or she wants to follow where divine wisdom will lead.

The counterpart of doubt is faith. Faith is not just the assent to certain beliefs but also trust in God and faithfulness toward Him. If certainty was the opposite of doubt here, the argument would become a reductio ad absurdum. It would be saying that certainty on all points of faith can block God from giving me further wisdom.

I was able to competently and confidently complete a presentation on the topic. My confidence in our beliefs was reinforced and, more importantly, my relationship with Jesus was strengthened. I felt His presence through the Holy Spirit stronger than before.

It is good to know that He is on our side as a Strong Helper and Master Teacher. Whether we ask for health; financial relief; or, as in my case, wisdom, God desires us to know truth, and truth does not shy away from examination. Only if I remain open-minded and willing to change my behavior due to new information am I, in fact, not a doubter. I will neither be a doubter nor assume certainty in all things; rather, by faith, I will put my trust in the certainty of God’s wisdom and guidance.

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