DOUBT: A Way to Faith

DOUBT: A Way to Faith

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Toronto, July 10, 2005

revcooper.ca


The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hand the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25)

What would our reaction be if we had witnessed a close friend being brutally executed with our own eyes, and then just a few days later, when meeting with others who also knew him, we were greeted with the news that our friend was alive and well?

“I don’t believe it,” we would say. “I have to see this with my own eyes!” Our natural doubt and suspicion of anything that is outside of the ordinary would probably cause us to react just as Thomas did, and which caused him to be forever known as “Doubting Thomas.”

His expression of doubt, disturbing in its graphic quality, forcefully describes a state of deep religious doubt. Upon being suddenly faced with an idea that was beyond his ability to believe in his present state, Thomas declared that unless he was given sensible proof of the Lord’s resurrection, he would not believe.

Perhaps today, being separated from those events by almost 2,000 years, we would criticize Thomas for his outburst. Perhaps we feel that if we had been in his position ourselves, we would have been more receptive, more willing, more faithful. Perhaps we feel that doubt itself should have no part in our religious life, that doubt is a sign of weakness, of a failure of faith, of insufficient study, or of a lack of understanding. We may feel that to admit to any kind of doubt at all, let alone a doubt as powerful and fundamental as that which Thomas expressed, is a sign of spiritual ignorance and weakness. After all, the angels never have any doubts – or do they?

If we reflect on this for a moment, it can be readily seen that doubt about any new thing is universal and instinctive. We all hesitate before accepting information simply on face value, especially when it contradicts what we already believe to be true. How often have we heard the phrase, “But I’ve always thought that….” when we’re trying to tell someone about some interesting new discovery. A new idea might be accepted without hard evidence provided the source has a history of strict accuracy and integrity, and provided some kind of evidence is forthcoming. Think about little children, and the look on their faces when you tell them something: often their faces will mirror their feeling that they really want to believe you, but they are not sure whether or not they should; while at other times they might stubbornly deny what you say, no matter how carefully and patiently you explain it to them. Little children instinctively doubt everything, even when it is from the parents whom they love and trust.

This is even true of little children who are growing up in heaven, and are constantly in the presence of angels (whom one would presume to be trustworthy)! Swedenborg wrote that when he was visiting groups of children in heaven, he was surprised to find that,

The spirits with me could not refrain from inducing [the children] to talk. This desire is innate in spirits. But I noticed, each time, that the children resisted, unwilling to talk in this way. This refusal and resistance, which were accompanied by a kind of indignation, I have often perceived; and when an opportunity to talk was given them they would say nothing except that “It is not so.” I have been taught that little children are so tempted in order that they may get accustomed to resisting, and may begin to resist falsity and evil, and also that they may learn not to think, speak, and act, from another, and in consequence may learn to permit themselves to be led by no one but the Lord (HH 343).

Doubt, our instinctive questioning whether a thing is so or not, is not a weakness, or a failure of our faith. Doubt is a faculty given to each and every one of us by the Lord from birth so that we might be able to protect ourselves from what is false, so that we might be able to freely choose to believe what agrees with what we have already learned from the Lord through the Word. Doubt, like the loves of self and the world, was given to us as a protection and also as a means of becoming spiritual; and like the loves of self and the world, doubt can be misused and inverted and so lead the mind into confusion and error upon error (See AC1072:2).

When we are born, our minds are natural, that is, they focus on and use information from and about the world of nature, the things that we perceive through our five senses. However, the Lord has intended that from being natural we are to become rational and finally spiritual. The rational and spiritual degrees of the mind both rest upon the natural degree as a two story building rests upon its foundation.

Doubt plays and important part in becoming rational and then spiritual, for the rational degree of our mind is so named from the word “ratio.” A ratio is a mathematical expression of the comparison of two values. The rational mind is that part of the mind which is used to take two different truths and compare them, one to the other, imagine their implications, weigh their values, and finally accept one or the other (or some parts of both) as something true that can be lived. If everyone simply accepted every idea they heard without question, there would be no ratio of truths, and the rational could not be opened. It is doubt, the questioning, challenging part of our nature, that allows us to take a truth, and as it were turn it over every which way, examine it, test it, and finally confirm it and make it our own.

Doubt is a powerful tool in the Lord’s hands, for by means of its judicious use, the rational and spiritual degrees of the mind can be opened. However, not everyone wants to have a spiritual mind. Not everyone wants to be led by the Lord, and with these, doubt becomes a powerfully destructive force that infects the mind and even reaches out to try to infect others. We read from the Arcana Coelestia:

Spirits are clearly distinguished from one another as to whether they possess, or do not possess, faith that inheres in charity. Those who possess such faith do not engage in reasoning about the truths of faith. Instead they immediately declare them to be true, and also confirm them, so far as they are able, by means of sensory evidence, factual knowledge, and analytical arguments. But as soon as something obscure comes up which they do not perceive they lay it aside and never allow anything like that to lead them into doubt. They say that the things they are able to grasp are very few and that therefore to think that something is not true because they themselves do not grasp it would be madness. These people are those who are governed by charity. But those who do not possess faith inhering in charity have no other desire than to reason whether a thing is true and to know how it is so. They say that if they cannot know how it is so, they are unable to believe that it is so. From this attitude of mind alone they are instantly recognized as those who have no faith at all, and it is a sign not only that they entertain doubts about everything but also that at heart they are deniers. And even when they are informed as to how something is so they remain unmoved and raise all kinds of objections, and would never give up even if this went on for ever. Those who are thus unmoved pile up errors upon errors. These people, or such as they, are in the Word called ‘drunk from wine or strong drink’.

Herein lies the essential teaching regarding doubt, that when a man is in good, that is, when he is in the effort to live according to the things that he believes to be true from the Word, he is then in the faith of charity, and his doubts serve to confirm the truth for him. On the other hand, when a man is not in the faith of charity, that is, when he does not wish to live according to any truths, but to live from himself and for himself alone, then he is as it were spiritually drunk, for he cannot be rational, and he proclaims his doubt and disbelief to all. He will stubbornly hold to the smallest point, and never give up his view even when presented with overwhelming factual evidence to the contrary. Instead of attacking the facts presented, he will turn on the motives and character of his opponent. Such people make every effort to negate what does not favor themselves and their own particular view of the world, and so it is said that they are in the negative principle (See AC 6479).

We have all seen examples of this negative principle, and examples of its opposite, the affirmative principle. Sometimes we see them in the same person at different times. An example of the negative principle might be the student who continually challenges the teacher, picking on minute points, and who seems more interested in finding fault than in finding out. On the other hand, we have all known people who greet each new day and each new situation with delight and interest. They see everything as a new opportunity to learn and grow. Their questions are designed to increase their own understanding of the subject, not to contradict the opinions of others. We feel delight and enthusiasm just being around such a person. Each of us is capable of having the negative or the affirmative principle become the dominant influence in our lives. We need to be able to see which one is dominant in ourselves right now, and do our best to keep becoming more and more affirmative about the Lord’s truth. This is done by shunning evils as sins and living according to the Lord’s commandments.

Doubt also plays an important role in temptation, and thus in our regeneration, for we are taught that,

He who is in temptation is in doubt concerning the end in view. The end in view is the love, against which the evil spirits … fight, and thereby put the end in doubt; and the greater the love is, the more do they put it in doubt. If the end which is love were not put in doubt, and indeed in despair, there would be no temptation (AC 1820).

Without doubt, there would be no temptation, for if a person did not feel in his heart and believe in his mind that it was possible for him to fail in temptation, if his loves were not being challenged, if there was no doubt concerning the eventual outcome, there would be no point in the temptation. If he could not lose, he would not feel the need to fight, he would not feel the need to call upon the Lord for help. In short, temptation would be reduced from being the means whereby one puts off evil and acquires new loves to being a annoyance without spiritual benefit. Only when doubt and despair are present with the man can the Lord flow into his mind with hope, comfort, and peace, for then the man recognizes his need for the Lord, and is finally ready to put himself aside and receive the gift of new loves from the Lord (See AC 5044).

Doubt has a similar function in the confirmation of truth, in that the Lord has given to man the faculty of doubt so that he would be selective about the things he allowed to enter his mind. Everyone begins with “historical” faith. By historical faith is meant that faith, or system of thought and belief, that one gets from one’s family, environment, and culture, without having actually confirmed any point for one’s self from doctrine or life. It is our first form of faith, and it is borrowed from those around us. Since this faith is borrowed, it is necessary for us to build up a faith of our own for ourselves as soon as the rational degree of the mind begins to open.

It is remarkable to note that even in heaven, it is of order that doubt is introduced by the Lord so that the angels will not simply accept what they hear. It is a law of heaven that whenever angels are taught something, they are soon also taught the opposite so that they must examine both ideas, compare them to what they know from the Word and from their own experience with life, apply the laws of the spiritual world, and finally when they see the truth itself, they make it their own (AC7298:2). It is of order that all truths, even those presented to angels in heaven are to be of life, not merely accepted by faith alone.

This essential doctrine is illustrated in the rituals of the New Church. The rite of Confirmation was created specifically to celebrate and support a state of affirmative doubt, a young mind taking to itself the responsibility of looking at the world with new eyes, guided by the Lord alone, and so beginning the lifelong journey of regeneration, of recreating the mind into heavenly order.

The design of a New Church chancel also illustrates how important this is in the daily life of the church. On the one side there is the lectern, where, except for the occasional sentence of introduction, everything presented is directly from the Word itself. On the other side is the pulpit where what is presented is drawn from the Word but subject to human limitation and understanding, and where every idea presented by the minister must be affirmatively doubted because it reflects a human understanding and experience of the Divine.

The Lord’s own disciple Thomas doubted His resurrection (Text), and the Lord was willing that Thomas actually explore His wounds if that was what was needed. This can illustrate for us how important doubt is in our spiritual development, what a powerful tool it is if it is used properly. The proper use of doubt comes from the attitude with which we use it, and the measure of our lives.

If we choose to be in evil, and delight in negative states, if we seek to destroy or deny anything that does not favor our lusts, then doubt becomes a dangerous weapon in our hands.

If, on the other hand, we are questioning, comparing, learning, and growing in intelligence and wisdom, daily seeing new applications of the teaching of the Lord in His Word, then our doubt will be like that of the angels, confirming that what is from the Divine is true, and that to live according to the truth is good. Then we can, like Thomas, stand before the Lord and we will be able to see His Divine Humanity with our own eyes, and, like Thomas, we will be moved to say, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28) AMEN.


The subject of today’s sermon is the importance and usefulness of doubt. In the first lesson, used for the children’s talk, we saw how the power of evil caused Aaron and Moses to doubt their mission to Pharaoh.

In our second lesson we read how the disciples themselves doubted the Lord’s resurrection:

Second Lesson: JOH 20:19-31

(John 20:19-31) Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” {20} When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. {21} So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” {22} And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. {23} “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” {24} Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. {25} The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” {26} And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” {27} Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” {28} And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” {29} Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” {30} And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; {31} but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. Amen.

And finally, our third lesson from the Arcana gives the reason why Pharaoh’s magicians were permitted to challenge Moses and Aaron and cause doubt among the children of Israel.

Third Lesson: AC 7298:2

[2] It is according to the laws of order that no one ought to be persuaded about truth in a moment, that is to say, that truth should be so confirmed in a moment as to leave no doubt whatever about it; because the truth which is so impressed becomes persuasive truth, and is devoid of any extension, and also of any yielding quality. Such truth is represented in the other life as hard, and as such that it does not admit good into it so as to become applicable. Hence it is that as soon as in the other life any truth is presented before good spirits by a manifest experience, there is soon afterward presented something opposite which causes doubt. In this way it is given them to think about it, and to consider whether it be so, and to collect reasons, and thus to bring that truth into their minds rationally. By this there is effected an extension in the spiritual sight in respect to that truth, even to its opposites; and thence it sees and perceives in the understanding all the quality of the truth, and thence can admit influx from heaven according to the states of the objects, for truths receive various forms according to the circumstances.

This is the reason why the magicians were allowed to do as Aaron did; for thereby doubt was excited among the sons of Israel about the miracle, whether it was Divine and thus an opportunity was given them of thinking and considering whether it was Divine, and of finally confirming themselves that it was so. Amen.


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