Issues of faith and doubt have a massive impact on Christians of every maturity level. And sometimes, the topic is presented in ways that are confusing and only increase people’s anxiety about their doubt.
If faith pleases God, then what do we do with our doubt? Are our questions a sign that we lack saving faith? Is doubt the opposite of faith? Is faith about making ourselves feel certain? These are critical and nuanced questions.
We’ve pulled together 10 key passages about faith and doubt to help illuminate the differences (and maybe even similarities) between faith and doubt. Let’s press in and see if we get a better understanding of this essential topic.
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1. Trust the Lord with all your heart (Proverbs 3:5-8)
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil. This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones.
When it comes to having faith, the Bible often portrays it as a question of whose perspective we intend to rely on. We can lean into what we know and understand about God and His ways, or we can trust in our own understanding.
In addressing faith, the topic really begins right here. Are we willing to concede that there are limitations to our understanding? Or are we willing to put the Lord to the test? The issue is never about what we convince ourselves we believe. We can say we trust God while leaning on our own understanding to make decisions.
As this passage points out, it’s only as we submit to God’s way that our path begins to straighten. Biblically speaking, faith is never merely about the specific beliefs we have-because our lives will always reveal where our faith lies.
2. You of little faith (Matthew 14:28-31)
“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
“Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
In a classic gospel anecdote, the disciples see the Lord walking on water toward their boat in the middle of the night. Peter calls out to the Lord and tells Him, “If that is you, then call out for me to come to you.” And the Lord does.
Now think about this for a moment. Peter stands up in the boat, throws a leg over the side, and then throws the other over, too. He is way out of his element, but he still gets out of the boat. Matthew tells us that he actually walked out on the water toward the Lord.
But when he saw the wind picking up, he panicked and began to sink. Jesus had to rescue the poor disciple. Keeping all that in mind, what do you imagine Jesus was trying to communicate to Peter by saying he had little faith?
- He was the only disciple who spoke out in faith upon seeing Jesus.
- He’s the only one who got out of the boat.
- He’s the only person besides Jesus who walked on water.
So why would Jesus single out his lack of faith?
For a moment, Peter resisted every rule he knew about the sea. He defied the natural laws of physics. He literally stood on water! Jesus wasn’t chastising Peter. He was reminding the disciple that he’d already done the hard part. He had already stepped out in faith. He panicked after experiencing the miracle. It’s pretty safe to say that Jesus was proud of Peter at that moment.
Imagine feeling called to the mission field. You go back to school and get all the training you need. You prepare for housing and employment in another country, and you quit your job. But the day you touch down in your new country, you decide you don’t want to do it anymore.
Our faith waxes and wanes at different moments. Sometimes we step out and do something challenging, and after we get over the hurdles, that’s when we begin to struggle because we can’t go back.
Faith isn’t something you have or don’t have. It’s a muscle that grows as you use it. But it still falters and fluctuates at strange moments-even after the hard work is done.
3. If you have faith and do not doubt (Matthew 21:18-22)
Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.
When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.
Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
The story about the fig tree is a curious one. Why did Jesus have to pick on a fig tree? What message was He trying to send?
When the disciples ask Him about this event, He doesn’t give them the “why.” Instead, He focuses on teaching them a lesson on faith. Sometimes the way we interpret His lesson can make faith more of a struggle. If the key to getting things done is to never doubt, then we’re all in trouble.
Like most Near Eastern teachers of His time, Jesus used exaggeration and hyperbole to make His points. When He wanted His followers to understand just how important something was, He would overstate it.
For instance, in the Sermon on the Mount, He tells the crowd that they should cut off their hands or put out eyes that caused them to sin (Matthew 5:27-30). Jesus knows that sin comes from our hearts, not from our limbs. And He’s not encouraging self-mutilation. He’s emphatically telling them that this is really, really vital. They need to take sin very seriously.
In the same way, Jesus is telling the disciples that prayer, coupled with sincere belief, is more powerful and effective than they comprehend. “Don’t be surprised at what happened to this fig tree,” He’s telling them. “This is nothing compared to the work you will do in prayer.”
If we focus on the more exaggerated parts of Jesus’s statement, then it’s easy to walk away thinking that the point is that every difficult thing in our life springs from our lack of faith and resolve to pray it into a better outcome. But Jesus intends this to be a galvanizing and inspiring message. Faith-filled prayer is world-changing work.
Video: Dealing with doubt
4. Help me overcome my unbelief (Mark 9:21-24)
Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”
“From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“If you can?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”
Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
This father’s expression of faith is one of the most honest and meaningful statements about doubt in the entire New Testament. Faith and doubt aren’t opposing positions on the same light switch. They’re often conditions that exist side by side.
This man asks Jesus to intervene because he does believe. He believes enough to bother asking, but he could believe more. We could always believe more. And nothing seems more meaningful than using your existing faith to ask for more faith.
5. They worshiped Him, but some doubted (Matthew 28:16-17)
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.
These two verses come immediately before Jesus gives the disciples the Great Commission. These 11 men had spent a little over three years with Jesus. They’d seen miracles happen. Their Messiah was crucified and buried, and a couple of days later, they were dining with Him. If there was ever a good reason to believe in the unbelievable, the disciples had experienced it.
And yet, here they were with their previously deceased King, and some of them were still harboring doubts. What kind of doubts? Matthew doesn’t tell us. Doubts that He was the Messiah? Doubts in His divinity? Doubts in the mission? Maybe a mixture of all these things.
What we do know is that Jesus doesn’t chastise them. He doesn’t tell them, “I was going to give you guys some critical information, but since you still don’t fully believe, I’m not going to.” Instead, He meets them where they are. He confides in them and charges them with their new responsibilities.
Why? Because their faith isn’t defined by any specific moment of doubt. Almost every one of these men will be martyred for their faith. Their faith is much bigger than these momentary questions and fears might suggest.
6. Unless I see the nail marks in His hands (John 20:24-29)
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
It always seemed a little unfair that Thomas is forever saddled with the title “Doubting Thomas.” There was a time when the disciples were trying to talk Jesus out of going back to Judea to see Lazarus because the authorities wanted Him dead. It was Thomas who said, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (John 11:16b). But that’s not what we remember about Thomas.
After Jesus is raised from the dead, He appears to the disciples. But John says “Thomas wasn’t with them” (John 20:24). They believed because they were there and saw the Lord. Earlier, when Mary tried to tell them that she had seen the Lord, they didn’t believe her either (Mark 16:11).
Thomas responds like anyone asked to believe something that seems too outlandish and extraordinary. He wants to see the evidence with his own eyes.
The beautiful thing is that Jesus makes a special trip to accommodate him. Again, the Lord doesn’t berate or belittle the disciple. Jesus shows Thomas the scars and encourages him to believe. And Thomas responds with heartfelt worship.
Jesus’s final statement here is critical. It’s one thing to see and believe, but a vast majority of Jesus’s followers will not have that luxury. They won’t get to touch His scars. And by saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” Jesus recognizes that belief isn’t simple or easy. If you struggle with doubt, Jesus completely understands.
7. Faith is confidence in what we hope for (Hebrews 11:1-2)
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.
The writer of Hebrews defines faith for us. It’s confidence in a future we hope for and assurance in what we don’t see. This is the belief that pleases God. But we mustn’t read this as:
Faith is confidence in our confidence and assurance in our assurance.
Faith that redeems us is confidence in Jesus, the object of our hope. Think of faith as a pair of glasses through which we gaze upon what we long for. The glasses help us see what we hope for more clearly, and they help us push through to grab hold of it. But we need to be careful not to make an idol out of belief-our faith isn’t the object of our faith. It’s a tool we use to see and grab hold of Jesus.
8. Without faith, it’s impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6)
And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
This is a critical verse. But what does it mean? When we think of faith as a synonym for belief, we will interpret it to mean that having the right ideas and never doubting them is the key to pleasing God.
Jesus was clear that faithful followers would be recognized by their fruit (Matthew 3:8, 7:15-20, Luke 13:6-9, John 15:2, 15:8, 15:16). But without faith, we cannot bear fruit.
It takes faith to pray.
It takes faith to serve.
It takes faith to embrace a kingdom view of the world.
It takes faith to put others first.
It takes faith to make sacrifices.
Without faith it’s impossible to please God. Why? Because faith is necessary for us to live as children of God.
9. You must believe and do not doubt (James 1:2-8)
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.
James’ words have often felt like a dagger for struggling people. Some people have prayed for sick loved ones, and when those loved ones didn’t get better, these words echoed in their head: “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord.”
But it’s vital that we don’t pull these words out of their context. This passage specifically concerns praying for wisdom. James tells us that if we feel like we lack wisdom, we should pray for it. God wants to give us understanding, but it doesn’t do us any good to pray for wisdom if we don’t believe God can give it to us.
This is what makes them unstable and double-minded. They’re praying for revelation but don’t believe it will come. How can they benefit from divine wisdom if they doubt its existence?
However, James is not saying that the strength of our belief is the defining variable in every prayer we pray. No one should feel like a tragedy could have been avoided if they just had more faith.
Video: Feeling VS. faith
10. Mercy to those who doubt (Jude 22)
Be merciful to those who doubt.
Faith isn’t static. We could have strong faith today and tomorrow go through something that makes us question everything. It’s incredibly important that we treat one another with tenderness and care because that’s how we protect doubt from becoming disbelief.
When Thomas said that he wouldn’t believe unless he felt the Lord’s wounds, he didn’t want faith; he wanted certainty. He was saying, “I will believe it when you prove it to me.” But faith isn’t certainty. It is belief in the face of questions and misgivings. It is trust despite doubt.
For people to grow in faith, they need the freedom to take tentative steps. They need to trust that their questions will be met with gentleness. It’s when doubt is met with mercy that faith expands.
If you’re interested in tips for a deeper faith, check out 5 Ways to Grow Your Faith.