The Virtue of Doubt
The simple man believes everything, but the wise man gives thought to his steps (Proverbs 14:15).
In the opening chapter of the book of Proverbs, Solomon personifies wisdom as a woman who calls out to simple men, pleading with them to turn from their foolish ways. Then in chapter 2, he presents a contrasting image of an adulteress who seeks to lead men astray by flattering them with her “smooth words” (2:16). Therefore, if we are to be wise, we must learn to distinguish between these two women.
Early in Proverbs 2, Solomon says that acquiring wisdom is similar to the process of searching for hidden treasure. This is extremely helpful because it suggests that all forms of Gnosticism and mysticism, with their emphasis on immediate and intuitive knowledge, are completely misguided. This side of eternity, the pursuit of wisdom is piecemeal and cumulative. As Paul once expressed it, “We see through a glass darkly” (1Cor 13:12), even with regard to the knowledge of God.
The idea that wisdom is to be sought out like a hidden treasure indicates that it’s difficult to acquire and that it frequently lies outside our view, just beneath the surface. In contrast, foolish ideas are generally out in the open and easy to discover. For example, in chapter 7 Solomon says of the adulterous woman, “She is loud and wayward; her feet do not stay at home; now in the street, now in the market, and at every corner she lies in wait” (7:11-12). In order to be wise, therefore, we need to apply a healthy dose of skepticism to popular ideas and views, particularly when we find them attractive.
According to the apostle Paul, this is actually a perennial concern. In his letter to the Romans, he reminds believers to “watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught…For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive” (Rom 16:17-18). Here he makes clear that Jesus’ followers weren’t called to be naive easy-believers, but from the very beginning were encouraged to be cautious and discerning.
In 1Th. 5:21 Paul encourages Christians to “test all things,” while also being careful to remind them to “hold on to the good.” In other words, we need to make sure that our skepticism doesn’t get out of hand. The prevalence of counterfeits doesn’t imply that there’s no such thing as a genuine bill. Paul is encouraging discernment, not a kind of cynical agnosticism. It’s actually the process of testing all things that we’re able to distinguish truth from error, and wisdom from foolishness.
In one of his sermons, Charles Spurgeon once famously noted that, “If you want truth to go round the world you must hire an express train to pull it; but if you want a lie to go round the world, it will fly; it is as light as a feather, and a breath will carry it. It is well said in the old Proverb that ‘A lie will go ‘round the world while truth is still pulling its boots on.’” This is why it’s so important for us to follow the advice of Paul, and Solomon before him. Because human nature is what it is, lies and distortions abound, and the truth is often hard to come by. Recovering discernment is particularly crucial in our day since foolish ideas can literally travel around the world in the blink of an eye via all the forms of electronic media, while the truth is still getting dressed.
We live in a world of soundbites and dumbed-down entertainment, which means we have less patience than ever for thinking through the implications of various ideas and opinions, particularly when this requires mental effort on our part. But we need to be careful here because Peter candidly admits that some of the things Paul writes about in his letters “are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction” (2Pt 3:16). Therefore, if we find ourselves gravitating toward things that are always easy to grasp and which don’t require any effort on our part, then we’re likely to be seduced by foolish ideas, and we’ll never end up maturing in the faith (Heb 5:12-14).
Alternative gospels have always been, and will always be, popular. For those who have trained their powers of discernment, these types of messages are easy to detect because they’re typically delivered by smooth-talking individuals who tell us things we want to hear (Is. 30:10, Rom 16:18, 2Tim 4:3). Therefore, it’s important to keep our guard up. We always need to be on the lookout for “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Mt 7:15), “false brothers” (2Cor 11:26, Gal 2:4, 1Jn 2:19), “false prophets” (Mt 7:15, 24:11), “false apostles” (2Cor 11:13, Rev 2:2), “false angels” (2Cor 11:14), and even “false Christs” (Mt 24:24, 1Jn 2:18, 2Jn 7). And this is why we need to “test all things,” while remembering to “hold on to the good.”
As Solomon taught over three thousand years ago, the pursuit of wisdom requires discernment. And in my opinion, this involves a healthy dose of skepticism. Seen in this light, doubt is actually a biblical virtue. We should be skeptical of popular views and ideas, particularly when they’re sexy and appealing. We also need to be skeptical of our own tendency to ignore ideas that don’t happen to scratch where we itch. The gospel of Christ crucified (1Cor 2:2) isn’t titillating, and is often hard to come by. Though the world dismisses it as foolishness, in reality, it’s the true wisdom of God (1Cor 1:18-25). In fact, according to Paul, in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:2-3).
Shane Rosenthal is the founder and host of The Humble Skeptic podcast. He was one of the creators of a national radio broadcast called the White Horse Inn, which he also hosted from 2019-2021. Shane has written numerous articles for various sites and publications, including TableTalk, Core Christianity, Modern Reformation, Heidelblog, and others. Shane received an M.A. in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary California, and he lives with his family in the greater St. Louis area.
Dealing with Doubt, Ep. 19 of The Humble Skeptic
On Faith & Doubt, by Shane Rosenthal
How to Detect Deception, by Shane Rosenthal
Can We Trust Luke’s History of the Early Jesus Movement?, by Shane Rosenthal
Why Should We Believe the Bible?, by Shane Rosenthal
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