Faith, Doubt, and Unbelief

By Ben Morrow

Does faith in God mean never having questions?

If so, how do we go about searching out the nuances of life’s most vital matters without falling into the sin of unbelief?

God spoke through His prophet Isaiah and gave Israel this invitation:

Come now, let us reason (or dispute) together. –Isaiah 1:18

As we grow in the knowledge of God—His character, how He works, His will for us, etc.—there will be natural theological questions that arise. “Just have faith” will not be a sufficient answer. Hard questions require more than bumper sticker answers. These inquiries are not inherently sinful; they are the result of mortal people attempting to understand the immortal God as He has revealed Himself. The questions surrounding this immortal God of ours get quite complicated.

With that stated, a devious trap must be avoided when wrangling with many deeper theological concepts. Our thoughts can easily lead us beyond simple inquiry to doubt, or even further progress into outright unbelief. We must be careful how we navigate these issues.

Let’s think about an example in the context of how the Scripture reveals God’s nature to us.

The Bible shows us that God is sovereign, independent, self-governing, autonomous. The Bible also reveals that God has chosen to work in concert through real people, accomplishing His grand purposes through—not independent of—His people. On the surface those two sentences seem paradoxical, impossibly inconsistent. How can God be completely in charge and at the same time choose to work—or choose to risk His work—through sinful, stubborn people?

I can ask those questions and attempt to find what God has revealed in His Word. I could also regress, however, into trusting my questions— questions that sow seeds of unbelief—more than God’s revelation. One approach seeks out a matter in order to know God’s answers; the other criticizes revelation on the basis of fallen intellect. Reasonable questions that lead to a greater knowledge of God glorify Him. Unbelief reeks of pride.

In answering the question of how God’s sovereignty is married to His determination to work with fallen people, we admit that much of the answer has yet to be uncovered for us. However, there is a key to reconciling these two truths. God has sovereignly chosen to use particular means of grace to accomplish His greater purpose, and His greater purpose will be accomplished. God hasn’t risked His work at all. He has planned out the details of His intricate plan, not just the result.

In other words, God doesn’t simply choose the end destination for us; He has determined the road we’ll take and the vehicle that gets us there. The two principles of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility do not create a paradox; they work in tandem. God’s plan is so complete that He doesn’t just decide what should happen; He knows how to make it happen in the perfect way.

This is why we pray.

This is why the God who controls all things, who never has His purposes thwarted, who designed all, sees all, knows all, controls all, and needs nothing from us in order to accomplish His will, looks at us and says “you do not have because you do not ask (James 4:2).” God uses prayer. He has determined to use prayer as a particular means of grace to accomplish His greater purpose.

In the same way, God has determined to use faith. We make a mistake if we talk about God as if He were not able to do something because we don’t exercise enough faith; this tends to miss the point of God’s supernatural ability to do all that He pleases. However, the Scripture is clear that God has determined to work through faith; and God has chosen to limit or cut off what He blesses in the absence of faith. A quick study of Scripture bears this fact out.

In nearly every instance of the word unbelief in Scripture it is used in the context of God (or Jesus) choosing to not do something because of unbelief.

Jesus didn’t do many miracles in His hometown because of the unbelief of the people (Matt. 13; Mark 6). The disciples couldn’t cast out demons because of their unbelief (Matt. 17). Israel fell as a nation and were “broken off” because of the people’s unbelief (Romans 11). The original generation of Israelites who left Egypt did not get into the Promised Land because of unbelief (Hebrews 3 and 4). And the admonition to the reader is for us to not make the same foolish mistake that inevitably leads to the same horrible consequences.

The sin of unbelief is more than having doubts, and it is certainly more than posing legitimate questions. Unbelief looks at God’s revelation and says, “I don’t trust You.” It criticizes God’s promises with a skeptical “I hear You; but it’s not enough. Your Word isn’t enough for me.”

Unbelief casts doubts on God’s character—His trustworthiness, His goodness, His honesty. A humble approach will prove God’s character to be all the more dependable. Faith takes God at His word. Faith takes our questions and searches out the mysteries of God’s revelation so we will believe in Him all the more.

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