My Take: Doubt, Faith, and Sibling Rivalry


Recently I was working on an article in which I was exploring the doubt and darkness that so often accompany this life.  Like many writers, I drew my own experience and began to write about a period of pain my husband and I had gone through. One of the first things you learn in writing is the power of stories and I wanted to use ours to tap into the larger human story and appeal to my generation who seems weighed down by the injustices of this life.But a strange thing happened. As I was writing, I found my story became more and more elaborate. The line between truth and exaggeration slowly blurred and by the time I had finished, it hardly resembled our experience at all. Sure, there had definitely been “dark nights of the soul” and times where God seemed distant and my questions all consuming. But if I was honest, I simply couldn’t muster a story of doubt to trump my peers.

Still stranger was that I found myself wanting to have doubted. I felt like I needed it as credibility somehow.  Because if Christian liberty has become the new legalism, doubt has become the new “faith.”  In this post-modern generation, if you haven’t doubted, you haven’t believed. If you haven’t walked away from church, you really don’t know what it is about. If you haven’t done something that flies in the face of religious convention, you are still its pawn.

And then I started thinking about all those of us who aren’t Thomases. It’s not that we don’t have our problems and it’s not that we don’t honestly investigate what we believe. It’s just that we don’t stumble over faith the way some do. In many cases, we never ran away from home--or at least we only went as far as the next conservative church. And we end up taking as much of security in this as our doubting brothers take in their ability to question.

This tension, this need to one-up each other either by our faith or our doubt, reminded me a lot of my children and their tendency toward sibling rivalry. It also reminded me of that classic story of sibling rivalry that Jesus told: the story of the prodigal son. Because if those who doubt are the younger brother who ran away from home, those who don’t are the older brother who stayed and are easily tempted to pass judgment.

Still, today’s story has a twist. In our post-modern paradigm, doubt has been enshrined, almost made a virtue, and this ultimately makes it hard for prodigals to “come to their senses” and honestly coming home in humility. Because their doubt has been affirmed, they feel comfortable with it and even demand that the father fix the things that made them angry enough to leave in the first place. But the thing about doubt (no matter what post-modernism says) is that Scripture never frames it in a positive light. Whenever someone questions God--think Job, Gideon, Zacharias, Thomas--even when their doubt is completely understandable, Scripture portrays it as weakness.

But the glorious thing about God is this:  with Him, weakness is not a liability.

Because ultimately this is the grace of doubt—not how wonderfully insightful and reflective it makes us appear--but how generous and patient it reveals God to be. In our doubt, we become the foil to display His faithfulness. And through our doubt, we learn how weak we were not to believe and how much we needed Him in the first place. In this sense, doubt can be very spiritual if it leads to faith--if in our weaknesses we cry out, “Lord, I believe--help my unbelief.”

But paradoxically, those of us who haven’t experienced strong doubt can be just as weak. Because we are the older son who finds security and pride—not in our Father—but in our certainty. We stayed after all. And we all too quickly identify ourselves as the “blessed” who haven’t seen but believe and we forget that not questioning the status quo is not the same as believing the truth.

Because faith that has faith as its object is not the same as faith in the Father.

Faith that is founded on tradition or religion or simply staying put doesn’t make us anymore faithful than those who doubt. And it doesn’t make us love our Father any more than the older brother’s remaining at home made him love his father more. After all, the reward he was looking for wasn’t the joy of a relationship with him; it was the approval he expected to gain from being the “good son.”

So in the end, this is what we must seek by staying home: not the Father’s approval because of our faithfulness but the joy of being with Him. The joy of days and weeks and years of fellowship that the younger brother missed out on because of his doubt and wandering. By staying home, we have the opportunity to forge memories, create a shared history, and enjoy a lifetime of discovering, not our own faithfulness, but His.

Because what both sons were missing in it all of it—what, if we’re not careful, we’ll miss too either by our doubt or our faithfulness--is the goodness of the Father. The goodness that allows for our questions and welcomes us home once we come to our senses. And the goodness that kindly and gently reproves us when we think we have been faithful enough to earn his love. In the end, what we must not believe is that the prodigal son was somehow better for his wandering. Or the older son better for his staying.

What we must believe is the goodness of the Father who loved them both.