Throughout the New Testament, unbelief is shown to be a critical problem in the life of many Christians. However, most teaching on the subject does not get to the heart of the topic. When unbelief is mentioned from the pulpit, it is usually presented in a superficial manner along the lines of people simply “not having enough faith” to see the power of God work in their lives. While the Scriptures are clear that God honors faith, our understanding of how doubt and unbelief specifically hinder that faith in our lives is lacking. To help the reader gain some insight into what doubt and unbelief really are, I offer the following outline. In some ways it may sound like a Word of Faith primer, but the outline I’m using I think is the best way to impart the concepts on these subjects.
Before we tackle the subject of doubt and unbelief, it might be helpful to gain a quick understanding of what faith is. These days, you will hear that faith is everything from “a living channel of trust between man and God” to “a spiritual force”. But ultimately, faith is not the means by which we get God to work in our lives; faith is the means by which we enter into His will for our lives! Faith is crucially important, and the Bible reveals several things about it including:
God is pleased by a person who has faith (Heb. 11:6).
God will work miracles on behalf of a person who has faith (Matt. 9:22, Luke 18:42).
God limits or even refuses to work in a person’s life when that person’s faith is weakened by doubt or unbelief (Mark 6:5, James 1:7).
And how does one receive or increase they faith. The Bible says that faith comes by hearing:
Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the (spoken) word of Christ. Romans 10:17
*Faith comes with the communication from God concerning His will in the situation, based on the promises in the Bible. Believing is actually the process of acting consistent with what was heard from God. Faith is the noun form and believe is the verb form of the same Greek word. Just having faith is not enough. Having the ability to believe is not enough. One must act on that ability by acting consistent with what is believed. So, using the Bible story of Peter walking on the water as an example, we can see that, “Faith is hearing Jesus say, “Come, and believing is actually throwing your leg over the side of the boat.”
But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter said to Him, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” And He said, “Come!” And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus.… Matthew 14:27 – 29
Peter heard the word of the Lord specifically spoken to him. He knew God’s will and then had a choice. How we respond to God’s voice will determine whether we are in faith, doubt, or unbelief. In the New Testament, there are generally two words used for doubt and two words used for unbelief. Each of the words represents a different form of the problem and may require different actions to overcome. (*I revised this section. See the original here)
Strong’s definition: To separate, make a distinction, discriminate, to prefer – To learn by discrimination, to try, decide, give judgment, decide a dispute – To withdraw from one, desert – To separate one’s self in a hostile spirit, to oppose, strive with dispute, contend – To be at variance with one’s self, hesitate, doubt
Description: Uncertainty on what to believe.
Cure: Enough information to make a firm decision on what to believe.
Usage in KJB: doubt 5, judge 3, discern 2, contend 2, waver 2
Use of the word in the New Testament:
Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt (diakrino) not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done. Mat. 21:21
For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt (diakrino) in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he says shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he says. Mark 11:23
Arise therefore, and get thee down, and go with them, doubting (diakrino) nothing: for I have sent them. Acts 10:20
And the Spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting (diakrino). Moreover these six brethren accompanied me, and we entered into the man’s house: Acts 11:12
And he that doubts (diakrino) is damned if he eat, because he eats not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin. Romans 14:23
But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering (diakrino) . For he that wavers (diakrino) is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. James 1:6
Diakrino is a superficial form of doubt that comes from uncertainty in knowing what to believe or who to trust, and often comes before someone has made a decision about what to have faith for. Example: I tell a person with cancer that God can heal them. “Really?” they answer. “How do you know? Are you sure?”
This person is unfamiliar with the New Testament, which shows that healing is provided for in the atonement of Christ on the Cross. I thus share some Scripture with him and conclude by saying; “James 5:15 says that ‘the prayer of faith will save the sick and God will raise him up’, so we’re going to pray for you and put this in God’s hands and believe for a miracle as long as there’s breath in your body!”
Diakrino is also a form of doubt held by non-Christians who do not know what the Bible has to say. Many such people, for instance, think all roads lead to God, and all good people go to Heaven. This may be because they have an insufficient knowledge of what the Bible teaches.
Strong’s definition: Doubt/waver
Description: Intellectually reconsidering whether or not something one is believing for can or will occur. Skepticism
Cure: Stick to the choice made.
Usage in KJB: doubt 2, staggered 1
Use of the word in the New Testament:
And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt (distazo)? Mat. 14:31
And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted (distazo). Mat. 28:17
He staggered (distazo) not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith giving glory to God. Rom. 4:20
Distazo is a form of doubt or skepticism that traces itself to a lack of commitment to the choice one has already made or knows he should make. He then reconsiders his original belief and either changes his mind and substitutes another belief, or he constantly wavers about the outcome. Example: The person with cancer whom I prayed for continues to worsen and concludes the prayer is not working so he distazos and decides it is not going to work, and he becomes skeptical. The Scriptures show this sort of doubt comes through giving up one’s conviction of faith based on what one sees or feels.
Some unbelievers may also have distazo in that they may know what the Bible says about salvation, Heaven and Hell, but they are not sure they believe it.
Strong’s definition: Lacking confidence in the performer, unfaithfulness, faithless – Want of faith, unbelief – Weakness of faith
Description: Doubting God’s willingness or ability to alter the circumstances one is in
Cure: Repentance (i.e. choose to believe)
Usage in KJB: Unbelief 12
Use of the word in the New Testament:
And he did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief (apistea). Mat. 13:58
And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief (apistea): for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. Mat. 17:20
And he marveled because of their unbelief (apistea). And he went round about the villages, teaching. Mark 6:6
And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief (apistea). Mark 9:24
Afterward he appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief (apistea) and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen Mark 16:14
For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief (apistea) make the faith of God without effect? Romans 3:3
He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief (apistea); but was strong in faith giving glory to God. Rom. 4:20
Well; because of unbelief (apistea) they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not high-minded, but fear: Romans 11:20
And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief (apistea), shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again. Romans 11:23
Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief (apistea)**. 1Tim. 1:13
Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief (apistea), in departing from the living God. Heb. 3:12
So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief (apistea). Heb. 3:19
** Paul here makes an unusual choice of words. One would think apeitheia, a stubborn refusal to believe, would be more appropriate to the context of his life and the verse. Use of the word apistea suggests to me that Paul’s stumbling block was more along the lines of doubting the Messiah could be a man who was crucified rather than a conquering Messiah that Judaism still expects.
Apistea is a form of unbelief that often shows a lack of a confidence in God to do what He has promised to do, and its cure requires repentance rather then merely overcoming intellectual doubt. Example: Our cancer patient agrees the Bible indicates that God can heal anyone of anything, but he says, “The doctor says I only have two months! Why should I believe God will heal me at this late date?” The cure for this sort of unbelief is repentance and acceptance of what the Bible says over what one sees and thinks. In other words, this is more of a conscious choice to doubt, rather than a doubt motivated by fear.
Stubborn unbelievers may also fall into this category.
1. Obstinate, rebellious, refusal to believe, apathetic.
Cure: Repentance (i.e. reject what the person has come to believe)
Usage in KJB: Unbelief 12, disobedience 3
Use of the word in the New Testament:
For as ye in times past have not believed God, yet have now obtained mercy through their unbelief (apeithei): Romans 11:30
For God hath concluded them all in unbelief (apeithei), that he might have mercy upon all. Romans 11:32
Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience (apeithei): Eph. 2:2
Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience (apeithei). Eph. 5:6
For which things’ sake the wrath of God comes on the children of disobedience (apeithei): Col. 3:6
Seeing therefore it remains that some must enter therein, and they to whom it was first preached entered not in because of unbelief (apeithei): Heb. 4:6
Let us labor therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief (apeithei). Heb. 4:11
We see they entered not in because of unbelief (apeithei). Heb. 4:6
Let us not fall after the same example of unbelief (apeithei). Heb. 4:11
Apeithei is the hardest form of unbelief, and refers to a person who has dug in his heels and simply refuses to believe even if he knows he is wrong–possibly to the point of actually preaching against the truth. Example: Our cancer patient agrees God can heal him and that the Bible says it’s correct to pray for healing, but he says “I don’t care whether the Bible says God will heal me or not–it’s obvious I’m going to die, so why pray for healing?!”
Otherwise, apeithei can trace itself to a sincere but false belief that a person refuses to give up. Example: our cancer patient is from a conservative Christian denomination and says “I don’t care what the Epistle of James says, our church teaches that was for the days of the Apostles, and we don’t believe God heals anymore, except through medicine, so I refuse to let you pray for me to get healed!” Both show an obstinate hardness of heart that must be repented from in order to remove the barrier to faith in a matter.
Some hardened unbelievers also fall into this category–they do not just reject the Bible for themselves; they consciously try to break the faith of others and they preach against the Bible to promote their unbelieving philosophies. This was the form of unbelief that the Pharisees who committed the “unforgivable sin” had empowering them.
Even some Christians dwell in a state of apeithei with respect to their belief that they have committed the “unforgivable sin”. No matter what you tell them or what Scripture you share, they have reached a state of apeithei and simply refuse to believe they are not lost. You can counsel them and counsel them, but the bottom line is that they must accept what the Scripture teaches about the love, mercy and forgiveness of God, and they must repent from consciously denying God’s mercy in favor of holding onto the belief they have committed that sin when the visible evidence shows they have not.
Progressive doubt and unbelief
Doubt and unbelief can be a progressive process moving from uncertainty, to unbelief, to skepticism, to finally disbelief. One might start out believing, but after a period of time passes without a fulfillment of what they are believing for, he might move on to:
Diakrino – The person might start doubting if they had actually heard from God, or wonder if the Devil tricked him, or if they fully understood what God meant, or worry that somehow they blew it and ruined the plan. Abraham is a good example of this. Although his faith overall never wavered in God’s promise for a son, he diakrinoed and was talked into having a child with Sarah’s handmaid in the belief that either he partially misunderstood what God had said or that God needed his help in bringing the promise about. (This shows one can be in a state of diakrino without ultimately losing out on the promises of God, although one can delay them by not remaining in a position of faithful confidence.) The cure for this is making a firm decision on what he believes and sticking to it. If he doesn’t do that and remains in a state of diakrino (indecision/uncertainty) long enough, he may drift into a state of…
Apistea – He now starts to doubt God’s ability to fulfill His word. His cure is to repent from worrying and direct His trust in God to do what He has said. If he doesn’t do this and continues to worry without putting down that concern, he slips into…
Distazo – He now becomes skeptical and may conclude if it was going to happen, it probably couldn’t happen now, so he may cease to believe as he considers the logic of the situation (as happened with Peter walking on the water). If he doesn’t stick in faith with what he has decided God has shown him, his doubt matures into…
Apeithei – He now consciously disbelieves in God’s promise and may even talk against it! In other words, his “faith” is now in the opposite to what he started out believing for originally! The only cure is full repentance and returning to a position of believing what God has said despite the circumstances he is in.
To sum it all up, let us revisit our cancer patient and take him through the various steps of doubt and unbelief as we listen to the words that could come from his mouth:
Diakrino (Uncertainty as to whether or not something is possible for God): “This cancer is terminal. You think God could actually heal me? I do not know but I guess I have nothing to lose by praying. God, if it be thy will…”
Apistea (Doubting God’s willingness or ability to work): “We’ve been praying for a couple of weeks now and I don’t feel any better. I don’t think it is working. Maybe I’m too far gone and we should have prayed earlier in this…”
Distazo (Reconsidering whether something can or will occur, and substituting another belief its place; skepticism): “I don’t think it’s going to happen. I keep praying but it does no good. We’re wasting time–God obviously means to take me home.”
Apeithei (Conscious disbelief or apathy): “Look–God is not going to heal me! I wish He would, but it’s obvious He isn’t and I don’t want to hear any more about it! I refuse to get my hopes up for something that just isn’t going to happen! If He wants to heal me, He can go ahead and do it!”
This article is based on one from Vince Garcia.