Must doubt accompany faith?

Faith has traditionally been known as one of the three theological virtues, along with hope and charity. But who would ever say that uncharity is a necessary compliment to charity? Or that Christians can never have hope without despair? Yet people seem blind to the absurdity of saying that doubt must accompany faith.

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9 thoughts on “Must doubt accompany faith?

  1. I don’t know. I agree that doubt is sometimes overly exalted as a virtue, and I’m with you on the absurdity of suggesting that uncharity is somehow necessary to develop charity. But as for despair and hope, doesn’t Paul say of Abraham that he “hoped against hope”–in other words, that he hoped even in hopelessness? It seems to me that we can’t truly understand the hope that the gospel offers if we don’t know at least a little of the despair that would be inevitable were it not for Jesus. Put differently, hope without some sense of despair can be trite. In perhaps the same way, faith without a recognition of doubt can be trite–not that we should seek for doubt, or cultivate it, but that true faith comes not from covering our eyes and denying doubt, or refusing to acknowledge it, but rather by believing in spite of doubt–faith as an act of will. Perhaps not too different from hoping against hope.

    But honestly, I can’t think of any way that uncharity could be good. Perhaps this is why out of these cardinal virtues, charity is the greatest.

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  2. JKC:

    Good to hear from you.

    As for Abraham “hoping against hope”, it’s funny you used that example, because immediately following that verse (Rom. 4:18), St. Paul continues:

    Without weakening in his faith, he acknowledged the decrepitness of his body (since he was about a hundred years old) and the lifelessness of Sarah’s womb. Yet he did not waver through disbelief in the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God was able to do what He had promised. That is why ‘it was credited to him as righteousness.'” (Rom. 4:19:22.)

    I think the phrase “hoped against hope” is drawing a contrast between the apparent hopelessness of things as they appear to us, and the fact that nothing is impossible with God. The contrast, again, between things as they appear to our sight, and things as they appear through the lens of faith: “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Cor. 5:7.) Faith is the ability to see what is not obvious to our natural faculties: “[T]he substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1.)

    Accordingly, to walk by faith is to walk according to what we see by faith, and to doubt is to walk by our natural faculties alone.

    It’s the same principle when it comes to hope and charity: As already stated, Abraham hoped against hope, in that he believed without wavering that God could do the impossible. And Christian charity means loving in a way that our natural faculties can’t grasp, i.e. when struck on the cheek, offering the other as well; and when asked for a cloak, offering one’s tunic as well. Giving with no hope of return — except the reward of heaven; giving away our money — but knowing we will have treasure in heaven.

    You can’t turn the other cheek, while at the same time hitting back. You can’t give with no hope of return, while at the same time requiring a promissory note guaranteeing repayment. You act in faith or you don’t. The former are acts of faith and the spirit, the latter of sight and the flesh. Once one has embraced the Gospel, how can it be good to walk by sight rather than faith, flesh rather than spirit?

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t claim perfect sanctity. I often walk by sight rather than faith. But I recognize that it’s always a bad thing.

    Something else just occurred to me: Saying that we need doubt so that faith may abound, is it not like saying that we need sin so that grace may abound? But is that true? “By no means! How can we who died to sin live in it any longer?” (Rom. 6:1-2.)

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  3. I don’t think we disagree. My point is not that we should seek for doubt or despair, or that doubt or despair are necessary to have faith, but just that we should acknowledge the reality that but for the power of the gospel, all would be despair and doubt. I don’t think that’s any different than saying that Abraham “acknowledged the decrepitness of his body (since he was about a hundred years old) and the lifelessness of Sarah’s womb.” Not that he despaired and then passed through despair into hope, but that he acknowledged that but for God, that which he hoped for would be impossible, and his hope, but for God, would have been either foolishness or despair. Put differently, it’s is not that we must experience doubt, but just that we acknowledge that there is no salvation outside of Christ, so but for him, our faith would be doubt and our hope despir. I love the connection you made between these concepts and Paul’s emphatic correction of the notion that we should go on in sin that grace may abound.

    I must admit also, that on the idea of hopelessness preceding hope I am heavily influenced by Tolkien’s eucatastrophe concept–as he saw it, the only thing that stands between us and despair is the knowledge we have of the incarnation and the resurrection, and if it were not for that knowledge, all would be despair. That’s why his characters speak of their hope for victory against all odds as “only a fool’s hope,” and why the rescue of the eagles and the triumph of good over evil are supposed to be such a surprise. He was of course enamored with the doggedness of the gods in the Norse myths–the way that they battled against the monsters knowing that they would lose in the end, not because they had hope of winning, but because it was simply the right thing to do; but he also described that as a “far off echo or gleam” of the way Christ unexpectedly (well, it would be unexpected, but for the hope of the gospel) overcomes the fall and redeems our natures.

    I guess all I’m really saying is that to truly appreciate the gospel, it helps to imagine a hopeless world without it. In that sense, it can be useful to imagine the doubt and despair that we would feel, but not to actually succomb to it.

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  4. My quarrel was with people who say things like “doubt serves the truth” or “doubt is an expression of faith”. I agree that it can be helpful to recall the doubt and despair of life without the Gospel by way of contrast with faith.

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  5. God called the light out of the abyss of darkness and created the world from absolutely nothing. Contrasts such as these move us to appreciate the gratuitous goodness of God and draw us closer to Him. In the Exsultet of the Easter Vigil we proclaim: O happy fault that merited so great a Redeemer. Here we recall how God brought a tremendous good out of the moral evil into which the first man had plunged himself. God patiently allows lesser evils to occur in order to bring forth greater goods. Where there is doubt, He inclines us to faith. It is not that doubt is necessary for faith, but the doubter, more so than one who has never doubted, will greatly appreciate the gift of faith which God has given him.

    To deliberately entertain doubts about those articles of the faith that the Church requires us to believe is to tempt God to sustain us in faith without our effort. Such doubting is a dangerous game, for God just might withdraw His grace enough to teach the doubter a lesson for the purpose of calling him back to the path to life. Such a one, after his repentance and restoration, might well proclaim “O happy fault!” and be invited to partake in a banquet as was laid out for the prodigal son.

    But indeliberate, unwelcome doubts that pop into one’s head can be beneficial: they test one’s faithfulness and challenge one to renew one’s resolve to believe with greater vigor.

    God bless!

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  6. If I don’t agree with you, I’m sure it’s only semantics. It seems to me that if faith is an act of the will, then so is doubt. If faith is a decision to believe in Christ, then doubt is a decision not to, or a decision to suspend judgment.

    If doubt is indeliberate, then it’s not an act of the will, and therefore it’s not a sin against virtue, but more like a temptation, the temptation to unbelief.

    But again, while I don’t know that I disagree with you, nevertheless it’s hard for me to understand how a temptation can be a good thing. Certainly it’s profitable to recall the times when we have sinned, in order to increase our gratitude for being freed from sin. And likewise it’s good to recall the time when we lacked faith in order to increase our gratitude for having faith in the present. But it can’t be a good thing to have sinned, can it? Or likewise to have lacked faith?

    Or maybe you’re only pointing out the ways in which God can bring good out of evil, in which case I wholeheartedly agree.

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  7. It is never a good idea to deliberately do evil so that some good may come of it. It would be like taking two steps back for one step forward. Can’t get far on the Way to Heaven like that.

    But temptations, such as unwelcome doubts, can be useful to us, otherwise God in His Providence would never allow them. Temptations test us as gold is tested in fire, showing us how far we have advanced in the spiritual life and how far we have to go. They reveal to us specific weaknesses that we can work on. They give us cause for humility, which we need to grow closer to God. They may serve as temporal punishment for our sins. They give us cause us to ask God for grace and moral strength, and reveal to us our need of divine assistance. They can occasion an increase in certain virtues, as a weightlifter acquires muscle by lifting the heavier, not the lighter, weights. And they help us acquire patient perseverance, for which we must also pray daily, as we do in the Pater and the Ave. Many good and useful things can follow a bout of temptation. But temptations can also wreck us if we succumb. Yet, God in His mercy never allows us to be tested unless He gives us the grace to successfully endure it. To resolve to endure it requires our act of faith and trust in His fatherly care.

    I cannot explain it any better than John Paul II has done in Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 26: “For those who beseech the Father not to be tempted beyond their own strength(149) and not to succumb to temptation,(150) and for those who do not expose themselves to occasions of sin, being subjected to temptation does not mean that they have sinned; rather it is an opportunity for growing in fidelity and consistency through humility and watchfulness.”

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  8. I think we agree that doubt is bad when we’re using “doubt” in the same sense.

    And I agree with you about temptation. Thanks for elaborating.

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  9. I would say disbelief, rather than doubt, is the opposite of faith. Faith does not always have an admixture of doubt. Sometimes doubt creeps in to the strongest faith. Sometimes, a little doubt is a healthy thing.
    I think greed is the opposite of charity. Greed can be “good” in the sense that capitalism is good. I.e. it can motivate us to do for ourselves something that does tremendous good for others. Charity can also be bad. Look at the way the welfare state can remove people’s agency, trapping them in poverty. Like doubt, a little bit of hunger can be a healthy thing.

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