Belief, Faith, Doubt, Unbelief

Last year I taught through Hebrews 11 in our church’s after school program. I selected this passage in particular for three reasons.

First, in this highly secular and materialistic age “faith” is seen as a kind of second-class knowledge.

Second, in this highly pluralistic society the object of faith tends towards the self. That is, the only kinds of faith that are encouraged are “faith in yourself” or “faith in what makes you feel good.” Since faith is seen as a second-class knowledge, it is totally disconnected from knowledge and radically individualized.

Third, I have heard that people learn well through story. Hebrews 11 is a catalog of some pretty incredible stories. Also, I needed practice telling stories.

My goal was to present stories of faith that rectified the first two issues above and pointed the kids to faith in the living God.

Just recently I finished reading Despite Doubt by Mike Wittmer. I wish I had had this book when I taught the series in the after school program. Thankfully, I had Wittmer for my Systematic Theology professor in seminary, so I don’t think I wandered too far off the path.

Wittmer has one particularly helpful chapter (chapter 9: belief) that distinguishes the concepts of belief, faith, doubt, and unbelief.

Belief, he says, is used in a weak and a strong way. We can say we “believe” something as a way of saying “I think” something as opposed to “I know” something. For example, I could say “I believe it will rain tomorrow.” I’m not completely sure if it will so I hedge and say I  “believe” it will rain. I think this is how most of the kids in Attic After School approach religious belief.

But, when Christians speak of belief in God we mean something more than that we just think God exists but aren’t entirely certain. We mean that we have knowledge of God and that we trust him. We are willing to do crazy things and stake our lives on this reality. That is what the heroes of Hebrews 11 did and it’s what we are called to do. This stronger use of “believe” we may call faith.

Belief, Wittmer says, “leans toward knowledge.” That is, if we believe something we seek it out. We try to become more certain. We try to gain knowledge. Faith, on the other hand, “leans on knowledge.” Once we become convinced we move to a position of trust, which leads toward the kind of action found in Hebrews 11.

Finally, this distinction helps us know what to do with doubt and unbelief. Doubt is a gap in our knowledge. We doubt because we are uncertain, because we can’t make up our minds. One way we resolve doubt is by seeking knowledge. This means, from a Christian perspective, seeking the knowledge of God.

Unbelief, on the other hand, is willful disobedience. Unbelief occurs when we know the truth but reject it.

So how then do we as Christians resolve doubt? One way is by growing in knowledge, as stated before, but the other is by dealing with any remaining patterns of unbelief. Act on what you know and seek God for what you don’t.

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