The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

Furtick, Strachan, and whether Doubt is Sin

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It went like this. Megachurch pastor, Steven Furtick, preaches a sermon in his typical millennial-hipster-mixed-with-seeker-sensitivity-on-steroids way on the topic of doubt. He even titled his message The Benefit of the Doubt (blushing). In the theatrical sermon he yells a lot and at one point cries out: “someone to my backside back me up on this!” That’s largely irrelevant, but I did find that really funny.

In the theatrics he places value on doubt for the Christian believer. His basic point seemed to be it is okay and natural and even valuable to experience doubts while living the Christian life of faith.

Image result for owen strachan

Owen Strachan, professor at Midwestern Seminary and popular blogger, however, took issue with this. The Christian Post even characterizes Strachan’s piece as a rebuke of Furtick for what Strachan thinks are unbiblical claims about faith and doubt. Strachan says:

Coming to faith in Christ necessarily means that you do not doubt the gospel of grace. Coming to faith in Christ means that you believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Jesus presented himself as the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Jesus demands total repentance and total trust in him, and he is right to do so. Jesus rebuked doubting Thomas (John 20:24-29). What specifically did Christ say to Thomas in verse 27? “Do not disbelieve, but believe.”

He goes on to say:

Let me say as this plainly as I know how: there is nothing of doubt in faith. God is not honored by doubt; doubting is not obedience to God. It is disobedience. We all falter in our faith…We are all the father of the child who has a demon in Mark’s Gospel. Every Christian must pray, “Help my unbelief, Lord, and forgive me for it!” (see Mark 9:14-29). But there is a major difference between categorizing doubt as sin and categorizing doubt as in any way neutral, acceptable, allowable, or virtuous.

Now, to be clear, I definitely prefer Strachan’s style, scholarship, and theology. I could never be part of Furtick’s church both for its style and its substance. However, on this one issue, I think Strachan is mistaken about the nature of doubt.

Epistemology and doubt

First, there is more than one sense of the term ‘doubt.’ There is, to be sure, a form of doubt that is sin. I call this toxic doubt. But the most common way we refer to and think about doubt is not in a moral category. It is epistemological. For Strachan to call all doubt sin and disobedience is just not being careful since intellectual doubt is not itself right or wrong, moral or immoral. To think so is a category error.

Intellectual doubt, in my view, is feeling the force of an objection to Christianity. It is to hear someone lay out, say, the problem of evil or to allege a contradictory set of passages in Scripture, etc., and to simply feel the pull of these problems. In short, it is a felt intellectual tension in our beliefs in light of an objection. The point is intellectual doubt is not something under our control and, thus, it makes no sense to say we shouldn’t doubt. We can’t just knock it off. It simply happens to us in our intellectual pursuits. Saying to not doubt is like saying to not find a person attractive. It is what we do with our doubts (and our feelings of attractions) that falls within the moral category.

Strachan uses a few passages to make his case here, but I find their use a bit fast and loose. Strachan summarizes the father in Mark 9:14-29 as saying, “Help my unbelief, Lord, and forgive me for it!” In the passage, the father certainly asks for help with his unbelief, but there is nowhere he is asking forgiveness for his unbelief. In John 20, it is also unclear to me that Jesus specifically rebukes Thomas for his doubts. Again, I don’t think that Thomas had any control over his having doubts. His mistake is he places his threshold of belief unreasonably high. It was only if and when Thomas himself could physically put his fingers in the wounds of Jesus that he would believe. Having intellectual doubts is one thing, but demanding a world of evidence is another.

Doubt as Instrumentally Valuable

Second, doubt has instrumental value and only instrumental value. This is a really important point. There are many things in life that have value even if they do not have value as ends in themselves. Take pushups, for example. Doing pushups has value but not as an end in itself. Those who do pushups (not me so much) do them for a further end, namely, for upper body strength. Pushups have instrumental value since, though not fun and sometimes painful, they lead to this good.

Similarly, doubt is instrumentally valuable since, when handled properly, it can lead to truth, knowledge and, somewhat ironically, an even greater faith. Without using these terms, I think this is what Furtick was saying. He was never extolling doubt as an end itself. He, as far as I could tell, was saying that working through the doubt leads us to these further goods (and went on to talk about “fulfilling our destiny” and that’s where I vomited). My point is that coming across some doubts is valuable when those doubts drive us to dive more deeply into our pursuit of God. They are instrumentally good. We don’t want to stay in the place of doubt. But they help direct us in the ways we need to be more intellectually careful. If hearing the problem of evil creates some intellectual doubts, then I think this is good if it drives us to dive deeply into the very powerful responses we have to the problem. Once we have settled a few of our questions, we somewhat ironically will have a deeper and more abiding faith.

Mere Belief versus Faith

Third, our intellectual beliefs and our faith are not the same thing. It seems clear we can intellectually believe in Christianity without having faith. This describes many people who regularly attend church. They may be in overall good shape intellectually and yet have no saving faith. Indeed, James tells us that even the demons believe (2:19). But I can also have some intellectual tension, questions, and even admitted ignorance in important areas and still fully place my faith in Christ. We do this all the time in our lives. We place our faith in things about which we are somewhat unsure and about which we have questions. We do this when we sit on a chair, get on an airplane, or commit ourselves in marriage to another. We can’t be fully certain about how it will all go, but we can fully entrust ourselves. I think the analogy of marriage is especially relevant since its most like our Christian faith. Our Christian faith is personal. Our beliefs, by contrast, are propositional.

Conclusion: Intellectual doubt is not sinful

I am, at this point, very confident that Christianity is true. I propositionally believe Christianity is true in all of its core claims and a host of more incidental ones. But I have questions about Christianity that I’m still in the process of intellectually working out. I also feel the tension that is caused from certain objections to Christianity. But here’s the point: I’ve given my life to it. I have full and abiding faith in Jesus Christ. I’m going to keep pursuing my intellectual questions with the hope that one day I won’t have those questions and the doubts will all be gone. But I’m not sinning while experiencing some intellectual doubts. I’m not disobeying or doing something necessarily contrary to faith when I process through my questions and tensions. It’s not to be celebrated, but it is also not something about which to say “knock it off.” Somebody to my backside back me up on this!!

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2 Replies

  1. Richard Donahue

    If you have doubts try looking into gotquestions dot org you can even see what that website says about doubt. We doubt because we are sinners but its sinful to stay there James 1:5-7 and it can lead to sin (Gen. 3; Eve) rather than to instrumental value.

  2. Ronin Akechi

    Thanks, Travis. This is well said.

    The problem with the “doubt is sin” viewpoint (apart from it being unbiblical) is that it doesn’t resolve doubts. Rather, it encourages us to deny our doubts, which means we avoid looking deeper into God’s word to gain a better understanding of the issues we have doubts about. As a result, we’re left with a vague, immature faith that believes what we’ve been told, not because we’re convinced of its truth, but because we’re afraid not to. That kind of faith tends to stand up poorly to the difficulties of life, not to mention persecution.