Doubt is the enemy of faith, right? Not necessarily. Hard-core atheists doubt that God exists. These individuals have made such doubt the cornerstone of how they understand the universe and themselves. In effect, they ask, “Who am I without this doubt?”
The Bible warns in several places against arrogant doubt. St. Paul writes that the very elderly Abraham “did not doubt God’s promise in unbelief ” (Rom 4:20). The Letter of James compares a doubter to “a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed about by the wind” (1:6).
Perhaps Thomas Edison’s humble, scientific doubt can help us here. After experimenting with many different metals, he discovered that his incandescent light- bulb needed a tungsten filament. Edison’s early failures proved not that no such metal existed—only that he had not yet found it. Doubt enabled Edison to persevere as an inventor.
In addition to the biblical examples cited above, the Bible sometimes describes a humble doubt, one that can lead to a wider and deeper faith. St. Paul tells the Corinthian Christians, “We are full of doubts, but we never despair” (2 Cor 4:8). A father who asked Jesus to expel a demon from his son exclaimed, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24).
Faith and humble doubt can coexist in the same person. Although the faith is very real, humble doubt drives it to the next level by accounting for some painful life experience. According to St. Augustine of Hippo, the doubt of Thomas the Apostle is more valuable to us than the faith of all the other apostles (Office of Readings for July 3).
Prayer and Doubt
In 2020, when he preached at the funeral Mass for Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis Schnurr recalled that when his predecessor received bad medical news, he reacted in the same way that he had throughout his ministry as archbishop. “He said, ‘The Lord is in this somewhere.’”
That’s what he and countless others have taken to prayer for centuries. A faith that absolutely dismisses the possibility of doubt is simply not honest, unable to grow as God intends it to.
When St. Francis of Assisi prayed in caves or St. Teresa of Avila dealt with rejection, sometimes by their own followers and at other times by Church authorities, wasn’t doubt a part of their honest prayer? Did the rejection arise because they were on the wrong path or because other people felt very threatened by such a path? Although we might prefer prayers that are always serene, honest prayer rarely is.
Did Mary Doubt?
Although many Christians may be shocked at the suggestion that Mary, the mother of Jesus, ever doubted, St. Luke twice says that Mary “remembered these things and pondered on them in her heart” (2:19 and 2:51). This first mention follows the visit of the shepherds immediately after Jesus’ birth. The second reference occurs after Jesus is presented in Jerusalem’s Temple, where Simeon prophesies a great future for Jesus and a sword that will pierce Mary’s heart.
The word ponder means “to weigh.” Do people need to weigh something about which they are absolutely certain? Does that describe Mary’s faith at every point of her life? Isn’t it more likely that at the foot of Jesus’ cross, Mary said to herself in her own way, The Lord is in this somewhere? Children understandably tend to take an either/or approach to life: faith or doubt? Adults who regularly choose a both/and approach can incorporate all of life’s experiences into a growing faith.
Doubt can either drive faith or kill it. The choice is ours.