Book Review: God in the Dark, by Os Guinness
Click here to listen to a 9Marks interview with with Os Guinness.
Why write—or buy—a book about doubt? For one, I know of very few good books on doubt. In addition, everyone has moments of doubt.
What exactly is doubt? How should we counsel someone who struggles with doubt? Should we be hard or soft on them? How did Jesus deal with doubt? These are the questions Os Guinness seeks to answer in God in the Dark.
Guinness says the reason to study doubt is because “a healthy understanding of doubt should go hand in hand with a healthy understanding of faith” (14). Yet the only way to battle doubt is to feed faith. “Assurance of faith comes directly from knowing God and only indirectly from understanding doubt” (32).
ALL ABOUT DOUBT
Part one is about the nature of doubt. Guinness points out that doubt is not the opposite of faith, unbelief is. “To doubt is to waver between the two, to believe, and disbelieve at once and so be in two minds” (23). It’s having a foot in both camps; it’s having a divided heart; it’s a halfway stage. This section provides a framework for the rest of the book.
Should Christians be hard or soft on doubt? Guinness said, “Doubt is not always fatal but it is always serious” (29). Doubt should never be treated as trivial, but it is also not quite unbelief. Doubt leads to unbelief, but it is not unbelief, so we should show compassion and understanding. Guinness closes the section about the nature of doubt by saying, “our examination of doubt will always tell us two things: the deficiency of faith that has caused the problem, and the sufficiency of God that is needed as the answer” (34).
Part two covers the seven most common categories of doubt. The first four result from deficiencies of faith in coming to believe: a person can doubt as a result of ingratitude, weak foundations, a lack of commitment, or a faulty view of God. The next three doubts involve deficiencies in continuing to believe: these are doubts caused by a lack of growth, unruly emotions, and hidden conflicts.
Finally, part three looks at two specific doubts: “Why, O Lord,” and “How long, O Lord.”
DOUBTLESS A GOOD BOOK
God in the Dark is a very insightful book, especially for those struggling with doubt and those looking for wisdom on how to counsel someone who is doubting. Guinness’s tone is compassionate throughout. Clearly he has counseled many people who have gone through doubt and come out of it.
The book has many other strengths as well. Most importantly he gives biblical remedies to doubts, including examples of how Jesus dealt with doubters. One particular comparison was especially perceptive. When the leper came to Jesus in Matthew 8 he doubted Jesus’ compassion. The leper says, “Lord if you will, you can make me clean” (Matt. 8:2). He doubts not the power of God but the mercy of God. In contrast, the father of the demonized boy approaching Jesus in Mark 9 doubts the power of God. The father says, “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us” (Mark 9:22). Guinness remarks,
To the leper, who sensed his power but not his love, “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” But to the father who has little sense of his divine power, he replied, “If it is possible!…Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Each had an incomplete faith because the aspect of truth he sensed was only a part of the full truth of who Jesus is. (71)
Guinness also engages the heart and mind when explaining doubt and providing remedies. He is empathetic and his goal is not to condemn doubt but feed faith. This empathy is evident in his advice about counseling someone who is doubting due to a lack of gratitude:
So we need to pray for the doubter as much as talk; raise questions rather than make statements, use the rapier and not the sledgehammer; care for him or her rather than judge. If we lecture people in doubt with a series of reminders, their defenses will be in place. But if we jog their memory, they will see our point before they can help it. (52)
Finally, Guinness poses heart-searching questions at the end of each chapter. He challenges the reader to consider deficiencies in their faith that might lead to doubt. In the chapter that deals with doubt from a faulty view of God, Guinness closes with the following questions.
What picture of God do you show in your beliefs? Is it sharp and clear or blurred and ill-defined? Is it something you have dreamed up? Or stuck together from various descriptions like an identikit picture? Or is it the picture God has given us of himself? Is it complete and whole? Or is part of it missing so that you trust what you know but wonder what the rest is like? (73)
Guinness challenges not only those who are struggling with doubt or counseling doubters but he admonishes those in the faith to ask themselves probing questions to strengthen their faith.
WHAT CAUSES DOUBT?
Guinness wisely walks the line on being too hard or too soft on doubt. Yet in discussing doubt he rarely points to the fleshly desires that can cause doubt. Pascal said, “For the Christian faith goes mainly to establish these two facts, the corruption of nature, and redemption by Jesus Christ” (Pensees, 3.194). Strangely, Guinness does not spend much time dwelling on the corrupt nature of man. In explaining doubt Guinness says, “Doubt is a matter of truth, trust, and trustworthiness” (14). But doubt is also a matter of sin. A wise friend asked me while I was reading the book the following question, “Did Jesus ever doubt?” The answer, I think, would have to be no. Guinness is trying to be “fair” to doubt because he believes that the major misconception about doubt is that most people think it always wrong (22). Guinness does not believe doubt is always wrong, but in wisely drawing our attention to this, he has inadvertently drawn our attention away from our corrupt nature that needs redemption by Christ’s blood.
That said, in defense of Guinness I believe that he is primarily aiming at those who beat themselves up over sin. So while he does unhelpfully overlook some of the sinful causes of doubt, he is pastorally wise in his approach to those who are sensitive about their doubt. Moreover, Guinness recognizes that we will all struggle with sin until glorification. Yet there will be a day where there will be no more doubt, no more unbelief. Then all believers in Christ will live by sight (2 Cor. 5:7).
TO STRENGTHEN FAITH
Guinness’s goal in writing this book is to strengthen faith by looking closely at some common doubts. “The tension of faith results from its being stretched between God’s promise and God’s fulfillment…faith’s task is to join hands with the past and the future to hold down God’s will in the present” (200). In general, he seems to rightly hold the balance between being too hard or too soft on doubt. He takes it seriously, but his goal is assurance of faith.
The book is a practical help to pastors, counselors, and doubters. Guinness divides his chapters topically so that counselors can have individuals read the sections applicable to their struggles. His writing style is easy to read, but his words are chosen carefully so that they deliver the message memorably.
Guinness has done the church a favor by taking a thoughtful and serious look at doubt and providing biblical answers to tough questions.