In modern American Christianity there is a somewhat troubling trend to view doubt as some kind of virtue. I’m not entirely sure from whence it arises, but the general thrust of the notion is that dogmatism and blind belief have wrought so much damage- both individually and corporately- that perhaps the only antidote to our race’s penchant for hubris is to double-down on any uncertainty and allow it to mollify our otherwise auto-didactic tendencies.
To hold oneself in too high esteem is certainly unwise, and an overemphasis on the ability of reason to bring faith’s claims in line with other modes of inquiry is definitely misplaced, but doubt as a virtue?
The word itself has an interesting origin, which perhaps underscores why sanctifying doubt may be misguided. In English it originally held the connotation of to be in dread of or to fear something; its Latin roots in dubitare contain the notion of wavering between two opinions, and even further down the linguistic chain meant to have to choose between two things.
Doubt, therefore, contains a sense of fear, but also a sense of choice. Doubt in an of itself is not merely a state of having not enough information or even not being intellectually certain of something; rather, doubt is to be afraid of the choice, the dread of having to choose and accept that choice and all it entails.
In the end it boils down to a primordial sense of allegiance; a choice allies the will with what it has chosen, whereas the doubter wishes to ride the fence, often couching indecision in fear or uncertainty.
But doubt is ultimately not a lack of knowledge or certainty but a lack of will.
There is a curious parallel set of stories in Luke’s Gospel concerning a pair of angelic visitations. While we usually associate the Annunciation with Gabriel’s message to Mary, there is a previous annunciation to the priest Zechariah. He and his wife were elderly and without children, Elizabeth being barren. We are told that they were righteous and followed God’s commands “blamelessly,” so one might suspect there was some cognitive dissonance between their faithfulness and their barrenness,
Nevertheless, it seems that despite the circumstance they were still praying that the situation would be remedied, for while Zechariah was performing his priestly duties Gabriel appears to him and says:
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.” (Like 1:13 NIV)
The words ‘do not be afraid’ are of course important for our purposes, for the angel might as well be saying ‘Do not doubt what I am about to say.’
There is a saying that you should be careful what you pray for, because you might just get it. In Zechariah’s case this is becoming all too real. The thing which they have been praying for for so long is about to be answered, and on top of that an archangel is announcing the news! But since there is that small practical matter of, well, the plumbing, Zechariah responds not with joy at the answer to his long-suffered prayer but rather a question of logistics:
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (Luke 1:18 NIV)
Zechariah is naturally experiencing uncertainty, for this sort of thing simply doesn’t happen. Yet here we begin to see hints of the dreaded dubitare, of vacillating between two opinions. After all, he had been praying for this answer to his prayer for a long time. He would have given anything for an angel to come and announce that it would happen. But now that it is happening, let’s go ahead and slow things down a bit. Old people don’t have babies- it just doesn’t happen. There is faith on the one hand in the faithfulness in prayer, and the doubt on the other since he is finally not believing that his prayer will actually be answered.
An otherwise innocent question thus becomes an occasion of doubt.
The fascinating thing is that an almost similar exchange takes place between Mary and Gabriel a few verses later. Gabriel announces the news to a woman who is likewise faithful to God:
“Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.” (Luke 1:30-31 NIV)
She responds in almost exactly the same way as Zechariah:
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34 NIV)
Is this not almost exactly the same? Both are given an unexpected announcement, and both respond with a question of how it will happen. Both are told to not be afraid, and to not doubt. Does this mean that Mary struggled with the same doubts as Zechariah? Is doubt fundamentally an unavoidable consequence of this mortal existence, that constant back and forth between two opinions?
Take It As You Will
Even though these narratives are markedly similar in the opening, they turn out much differently. It seems that Zechariah gets the short end of the stick, since although his question is fundamentally the same as Mary’s, in Zechariah’s case he gets dressed down by an angel for his lack of belief:
The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” (Luke 1:19-20 NIV)
In other words, I’m a freaking angel and you should believe what I say because I’m a freaking angel who is telling you that God is about to answer your prayer.
Zechariah got what he wanted, got what he prayed for, but when faced with it in the realness of that moment the final leap of faith from the fence-riding of doubt was not yet ready. After all, if he realized that he couldn’t naturally have children, then his prayer must have involved at least some latent anticipation that a supernatural action must take place. But here is that action, and all he has to do is receive it.
In fact, the angel’s words should be taken as meaning that this is going to happen whether Zechariah will receive it in belief or not. That is the essence of “at their appointed time.” Thus, Zechariah’s uncertainty over how it all be accomplished is not at issue, but rather whether he is willing to unite his will to what is going to transpire. Since the angel’s words mean that this is certainly going to happen, and that God is the one who is going to make it happen, Zechariah’s protests about logistics are thus the last visages of wavering between opinions.
We catch an echo of the prophet Elijah’s demands on Mt. Carmel- how long will you waver between two opinions? If God is God, then serve him and do what he says! There is no room in obedience for the dreaded dubitare.
Zechariah’s question essentially sets his will (even if it is clouded in uncertainty) over against God’s, his word against God’s. I’m am too old, he says. This is going to happen no matter how old you are because I am going to make it happen, God says.
As You Will
But as we move to Mary, we find a much different response from Gabriel. Mary’s nearly identical question is not met with a verbal dressing down but rather with an explanation:
“The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.” (Luke 1:35-37 NIV)
Mary’s answer, even in the midst of her own logistical uncertainty, is instructive:
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38 NIV)
Unlike Zechariah, Mary doesn’t try to talk God out of what he is already going to do. Unlike Zechariah she was not praying for a son, but when faced with it (and all the consequences such a birth would entail) she believed the angel’s words. It is tempting to take them as an admission of doubt, but since belief is not found in possessing a requisite amount of information for intellectual certainty but rather in a disposition of the will, her response is actually completely different.
She is not trying to change God’s mind or to question the veracity of the angel’s message. Since her disposition towards the angelic announcement is one of submission, her inquiry becomes a further searching into God’s will.
The same question can be a deflection of action, or a preparation for the same. In Zechariah’s case the question sets itself up against his own faith and his own prayers, placing its fulfillment in his own adequacy and understanding and power rather than God’s In Mary’s case the question becomes a deeper dive into God’s will, an attempt to discover how best to fulfill it. Her natural uncertainty about a super-natural event becomes not an occasion for doubt but rather for a radiant faith.
And since faith is ultimately about the will rather than the intellect, these two annunciations furnish a poignant example of why Jesus tells his disciples:
“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.” (Matthew 21:21 NIV)
Jesus no doubt learned this from his mother, for she had faith and did not doubt. her virtue was not in her uncertainty but rather in believing and living the word of God proclaimed to her. It is this certainty that comes from uniting our will to God’s that is the basis of our faith and is why the author of Hebrews describes it as such:
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1 NIV)
If that is the kind of faith you are asking God for, you better be careful; like Mary, you just might get what you pray for.
A heavenly fire engenders him, not flesh
Nor blood of father, nor impure desire.
By power of God a spotless maid conceives,
As in her virgin womb the Spirit breathes.
The mystery of this birth confirms our faith
That Christ is God: a maiden by the Spirit
Is wed, unstained by love; her purity
Remains intact; with child within, untouched
Without, bright in her chaste fertility,
Mother yet virgin, mother that knew not man.
Wh, doubter, do you shake your silly head?
An angel makes this known with holy lips.
Will you not hearken to angelic words?
The Virgin blest, the shining messenger
Believed. and by her faith she Christ
Christ comes to men of faith and spurns
Irresolute in trust and reverence.
The Virgin’s instant faith attracted
Christ into her womb and hid him there
til birth. (Prudentius, Apotheosis)