Right off the start I’d like to differentiate between doubt and feelings of doubt. If this seems like hair-splitting, consider for a moment what we experience in real life.

We already know that feelings are variable and likely to change with the weather, our circumstances, or even what we had for supper. And feelings of doubt can be just like that. Sometimes God feels very real; other times the universe feels like a hostile, empty place with no God and no hope.

James 1:5-7 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does“. Where does this instability come from? I would suspect mainly when we allow our emotions to determine our direction rather than a calculated decision to trust.

Look at Peter. He sees Jesus walking on the water, and steps out to meet him. But seeing the waves and wind, his decision to trust falters and he starts to sink. He took his eyes off Christ and gave heed to his fear.

Perhaps we need to qualify doubt. We all will have such feelings from time to time; I think it’s what we do about them that matters. That’s where we put feet to these emotions and make it them a real fact in our lives. Yet our emotions vary and are largely products of our environment and upbringing; should we really look to them to determine our direction? The disciple chooses to follow Christ regardless of the mood he or she is in. This indicates better the meaning of Habbukuk’s words, translated in some versions as “the just shall live by his faithfulness“. (Hab. 2:4) Faithfulness means doing the right thing, even when we aren’t in the mood; getting up for work when we’re short of sleep, staying faithful to a spouse when temptation beckons. When feelings become our chief motivators, we are like the waves driven by our storming emotions; when reason and trust in God are first, there is calm and direction. Faith – trust – in Something or someone bigger than yourself leads to doing the right thing when you’re not feeling like it; to in fact be faithful.

This has tremendous practical consequences. We are told “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11). Now there are lots of times I feel quite alive to sin, the world and its allure, but I’m told that by faith I’m to count on the fact that I’ve actually died to the world.

I am a happily married man. I “count myself dead” – that is, unavailable – to all the other girls in the world, and am “alive” only to my wife. This counting on, this reckoning, is vital to maintaining the integrity of my marriage. But (and this is important) I don’t “count myself dead” to the other girls just when I feel like it; it’s a lifelong commitment, a vow before God, our friends and my bride that I would remain faithful. The discipline of my emotions to this vow helps keep my marriage strong. In the same way, the discipline of our faith – our choice to trust, sometimes in spite of our feelings – keeps our relationship with God vital and relevant.

Before I leave the subject, I must say that there is another kind of doubt; the kind that comes from an honest intellectual search, or from experience. If I have lent my friend my car and he brings it back with an empty tank every time he has used it, I may doubt he will fill it up next time he uses it. Experience supports this doubt. Or the intellectual searcher, who with an honest heart, wants to know what is true regardless of what he hopes he’ll find. I believe that an honest atheist is closer to God than the hypocritical churchgoer who clings to the form of his religion long after his real faith has fizzled out. Of course, I also believe that if you really peel away all the layers, you’ll find the real God at the bottom of it all.

In our search for truth it’s dishonest to stop as soon as we get the result we want. We need to go all the way down to the bone. There are mentally lazy atheists and agnostics as well as churchgoers. As C.S. Lewis points out, God isn’t impressed by intellectual slackers any more than those who shirk physical work.