The Difference Between Doubt and Despair

Doubt has a very bad reputation in most Christian communities. It’s seen as a temptation to be avoided, a slippery slope to losing faith completely. In these communities, questioning God – or, even worse, the established teachings of the church – is seen as the worst thing you could do.

In the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, we see things a little bit differently. We welcome honest doubt and wrestling as a pathway to faith. Doubt is where questions come from, and questions help us learn. If we never doubted God, we’d wouldn’t have any reason to ask questions about him, to grow in our knowledge of him. Without doubt about our faith, we’d never find the momentum to embrace new perspectives, reform struggling institutions, and breathe new life into our neighborhoods. Doubt is valuable. Though at times it can seem like doubt is destructive, healthy doubt ultimately builds us back up, leaving a faith that is even stronger.

Despair is different. Despair isn’t about asking questions, it’s not about the search for truth. When the darkness of despair creeps in, it speaks with finality. It tries to convince you that everything you love, everything you are, is a big waste of time. Despair is a suffocating presence. It annihilates our God-given spark, our life, our vision. If we spend enough time immersed in despair, we’ll die.

Doubt and despair often get mistaken for one another. I guess I can understand why. Both can be traumatic, throwing our whole worldview for a loop. But the outcomes that the two produce couldn’t be more different. Healthy doubt ultimately leads us to embrace a new sense of life and truth, but despair isn’t finished until it has taken us to rock bottom and beyond.

As followers of Jesus, how do we embrace honest doubt while rejecting the darkness of despair? Do we acknowledge that we are in a spiritual battle with forces that want to separate us from God? What are practices that we can embrace to discern the spirits, telling the difference between doubt that builds up and despair that destroys?

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