Question: What’s the difference between doubt and unbelief?
Answer: This is a really good question! There are four parts to the answer.
1. You can’t have faith without questions.
This is true for the simple reason that God has chosen to keep many secrets. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children” (Deuteronomy 29:29). There are certain things God has revealed: That’s what makes faith possible. There are certain things God has kept secret: That’s what makes faith necessary.
Paul says, “Now I know in part…” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We know in part, and that is why we walk by faith and not by sight. Faith lives with unanswered questions. You cannot live in this world without asking, “Why?” We live with the mysteries of evil and suffering.
Just as it’s part of Christian faith to say we know what God has revealed, it is part of Christian humility to say we do not know what God has kept secret.
When massive suffering comes close to home as it did on September 11, 2001, the world will say to us, “How do you explain this?” as if faith depended on having all the answers. But if you had all the answers, then you would have no need of faith.
The day will come when “we will know fully, even as we are fully known.” But on that day faith will no longer be necessary. Faith will be turned to sight, and we will behold him! Until then, we will have faith with questions, and that will be a normal experience of the Christian life.
2. You can only doubt what you already believe.
Doubt is not the absence of faith; doubt is the questioning of faith. You can only doubt what you already believe.
When a Christian doubts, he fears God may not exist. The Christian believes there is a God, and when he doubts, he questions what he believes. When an atheist doubts, he fears God may exist. The atheist believes there is no god and so, by definition, a doubting atheist would be someone who was questioning his unbelief!
Doubt presupposes some kind of faith. That is what doubt is, and it is one of the most common struggles in the Christian life.
3. Doubt and unbelief are different.
It’s important to grasp the difference between doubt and unbelief. Doubt is questioning what you believe. Unbelief is a determined refusal to believe. Doubt is a struggle faced by the believer. Unbelief is a condition of the unbeliever.
Unbelief involves spiritual blindness and a determined resistance to God. Of persecuting believers, Paul said, “I acted in ignorance and unbelief.” I could not understand the truth, (ignorance), and I was deeply resistant to the truth (unbelief).
That was his condition, and the only cure for it was what happened on the Damascus Road when he was wonderfully converted. He discovered that Jesus is Lord, and the whole disposition of his soul was changed by the power of the Holy Spirit. He moved from a position of unbelief to a position of faith.
There may be some people who feel their problem is doubt, when actually the real problem is their unbelief. The issue is not that they doubt their faith, but that they do not have a faith to doubt. They need to believe the things that God has revealed, and act upon them:
- God has sent his Son into the world.
- The Son of God loved you and gave himself for you.
- He is risen from the dead and ascended into heaven.
- You are more wicked than you ever thought possible, and at the same time…
- You are more loved than you ever imagined.
God calls on you to repent from a self-centered life, and he offers you mercy, pardon, and forgiveness through his Son, Jesus. He offers his power and presence by the Holy Spirit, so that you’re able to pursue life on his plan.
Paul moved from unbelief to faith as God worked a miracle in his life. Maybe that’s precisely what needs to happen for you. God will give you that same gift if you will ask him.
4. You can help someone by discerning the difference.
Doubt and unbelief are different, so discerning the difference is of great importance.
You can see the difference in the story of a married couple – Job and his wife – who experienced a great family tragedy. In one day, they lost their business, wealth, property, and every one of their seven children died, as a house where they were holding a party collapsed on them.
Job and his wife were thrown into a tailspin. They responded in completely different ways.
Suffering exposed Job’s love for God, as he wrestled with mysteries he could not understand, but it exposed his wife’s unbelief: “Curse God and die,” she said. Their response to suffering was the most revealing thing about them, and it will be one of the most revealing things about us.
We don’t know what happened to Job’s wife. We know that he had children later, and so it may be that God worked a miracle in her soul just like the miracle in the Apostle Paul.
My prayer is that God will use this to help those struggling with doubt to understand what’s happening and find light in their darkness; that he will bring unbelievers to the miracle of new birth; and that he will equip us to minister to others who have faith with questions.