Doubt is not dangerous, and it may help us manage tension and hold space for God’s truth until we are ready to allow Jesus to help us overcome unbelief.
So they brought the boy. But when the evil spirit saw Jesus, it threw the child into a violent convulsion, and he fell to the ground, writhing and foaming at the mouth.
“How long has this been happening?” Jesus asked the boy’s father.
He replied, “Since he was a little boy. The spirit often throws him into the fire or into water, trying to kill him. Have mercy on us and help us, if you can.”
“What do you mean, ‘If I can?’” Jesus asked. “Anything is possible if a person believes.”
The father instantly cried out, “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!”
I love this relatable passage in the Gospel of Mark that teaches us about doubt. This father wants so badly to believe and has all the reasons—he needed Jesus to rescue his son.
Earlier in this passage, we get some hints about why the man may have been struggling to let go of his unbelief. When Jesus, Peter, James, and John approached this crowd, the rest of the disciples were in a heated argument with some teachers of religious law. It turns out that the man had asked the disciples to help the boy, but they couldn’t cast out the demon.
Can you imagine how that all went down? People have heard how Jesus is casting out these awful demons, and here are his disciples who have seen it happen. In fact, the disciples may have even told this man how Jesus gave them the same authority to cast out evil spirits and heal people. The father had tried everything to get help for his son, and the rest of his dwindling hope for miraculous healing was wrapped up in this amazing man he’d been told about. When the disciples couldn’t help, the skeptical teachers of the law jumped in to take advantage of this opportunity to discredit Jesus. The father just needed help, yet he was suddenly surrounded by a crowd of people arguing about things that didn’t even matter to him. I imagine it left the man feeling disheartened and doubtful, wondering if what he’d been told was even true. But then Jesus showed up.
Take notice of this: everything changed when the man met Jesus face-to-face. Also, Jesus came to this father precisely when the father felt like he had exhausted all his options for helping his son. At that moment, the man was ready.
By many accounts, doubt has certainly been treated as taboo in some communities. But at Grace Church, we’re sharing a different understanding of doubt. In this story about Jesus, I see doubt as the father’s ability to hold the tension between belief and unbelief simultaneously without losing all hope that his son could be healed. His doubt enabled him to disregard the confusion of the crowd so that he would be ready for his moment of direct contact with Jesus.
I think it’s the same with us, except in our time our encounter happens with the Holy Spirit instead of Jesus in the flesh. In John 3:8, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can't tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can't explain how people are born of the Spirit.”
I can do my best to describe my experiences with the Holy Spirit, but I’ll never be able to explain to anyone exactly how to recognize or encounter it for themselves. The first time I recognized the Holy Spirit in my life, it felt like a face-to-face moment with Jesus that completely transformed my perspective from that point forward. I’ve described it before as feeling like God’s peace descended on me in the midst of painful chaos. To me, that was the moment I was “born of the Spirit.” I now see everything in life through a lens of faith that I didn’t previously have. Even in struggles, it enables me to receive the gift of peace that Jesus promised in John 14:27.
I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.
Through this lens of faith, I believe it’s even possible to see a purpose in doubt. Could it be that God has equipped us with the free will to doubt so that the Spirit can work in our lives through it? Perhaps doubt—like fear, anger, or guilt—serves as an instrument in our spiritual navigation system that can lead us closer to God and divert us from environments or beliefs that would be detrimental to our understanding of his loving character. These uncomfortable feelings initiate our desire to seek out and accept the gifts from God that we’ve already inherited, prompting a deep knowing in our souls that God has more in store for us—that we were fearfully and wonderfully made for more.
Circling back to the story, the father’s doubt may have protected his faith and hope from the motives of the skeptical teachers. They were intent on shutting Jesus down by discrediting him to the crowd. What if the father had accepted their perspective? What if he gave up hope for his son just before he came face-to-face with Jesus?
Here’s yet another angle on doubt.: following the resurrection, Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene and instructed her to share the news that he was alive with the other disciples. But when she told the disciples, they doubted her story and didn’t believe until Jesus appeared to them as well. Two of the Gospels recount Jesus rebuking the disciples for not believing the women. It’s possible that he was working through their doubt to help them deconstruct misconceptions that were not useful in the Kingdom of God. In this case, he challenged their cultural beliefs about the role of women. When the Spirit reaches us in the midst of our doubts, we can potentially be left with a serendipitous sense of knowing that God led us to the exact spot where we would encounter conditions just right for our spiritual growth no matter where we are in our journey.
Doubt is not dangerous. When we see doubt through this lens of faith, we can gain the understanding that doubt holds space for God’s truth. We can recollect the ways our own doubt challenged us to grow deeper roots with the direction of the Holy Spirit. We can see that it helps those without the lens of faith to manage the tension until they are ready for Jesus to cut through the crowd and allow him to help them overcome their unbelief. God equips us with the free will to doubt until we are ready to accept the lens of faith that enables us to recognize the Holy Spirit and see the true gift of peace Jesus offers to his followers.