In the Episcopal Church, when we baptize a person, we pray that God will “give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will, and to persevere, a spirit to know, and love, [God], and the gift of joy, and wonder in all [God’s] works.”[1] Similarly, in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the prayer is that the baptizee will receive “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge, and the fear of the Lord, [and] the spirit of joy in [God’s] presence.”[2]

In both traditions, our prayer is that the new church member will live a life of faith, in which he or she will develop and exercise the faculty of discernment, which is “the ability to make discriminating judgments, to distinguish between, and recognize the moral implications of, different situations and courses of action.”[3] In today’s readings, we have two stories of discernment.

First, in the Old Testament reading, Eli’s comprehension that Samuel is being addressed by God and then, in the Gospel lesson, Nathanael’s recognition of Jesus as “the Son of God . . . the King of Israel.”[4] We do not know Eli’s internal monologue, what he may have been thinking when awakened by Samuel (perhaps those of us who have been roused late at night by a young child can imagine it), but we do know Nathanael’s initial thoughts about Jesus: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”[5] To call Nathanael doubtful would, I think, be an understatement.

Sometimes, doubt is equated to lack of faith. Folk will point to Jesus saying, as he does in both Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospels, that if we have faith and do not doubt, we can order a mountain to throw itself into the sea and it will be done.[6] However, the original Greek word translated as “doubt” in both those cases is diakrino which carries a connotation of hostility and dispute, suggesting not simply doubt but a refusal to believe. When James, in his general epistle, condemns “the one who doubts” as “double-minded and unstable in every way,” he too uses this Greek word diakrino with its suggestion of contention and dispute.

In Matthew’s Gospel, when Peter tries to walk on the water and fails, Jesus asks him, “Why did you doubt?”[7] The Greek there is distazo which means “to waiver” or to grow timid. In the story of “doubting” Thomas in John’s Gospel, when Jesus says to Thomas “Do not doubt but believe,”[8] the original Greek is apisto which means “faithless or perfidious.”

In none of these instances does Scripture suggest that in our discernment and judgment we should not exercise a healthy skepticism. In fact, in Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians he encourages his readers to “test everything; hold fast to what is good [and] abstain from every form of evil.”[9] In a recent interview, Dr. Sandy Goldberg, professor of philosophy at Northwestern University, opined that “you need skepticism in order to have a healthy kind of trust.”[10] Faith and doubt go hand-in-hand.

Faith is the decision to believe in the face of doubt. The atheist would say that religious faith is the choice to believe something for which there is no evidence; the believer would say that refusal to believe in God is itself a faith based on ignoring evidence. If they are intellectually and spiritually honest, both must admit that their belief or unbelief is subject to uncertainty.

Leslie Dixon Weatherhead was an English Methodist Minister who served at the City Temple, a Congregational Church in London. He served there from 1936 until his retirement in 1960. In one of his several book, The Christian Agnostic, he wrote, “When people said to me, ‘I should like to be a member of the City Temple, what must I believe?’ I used to say, ‘Only those things which appear to you to be true.’”[11]

In both Episcopal and Lutheran services of baptism, the presiding minister asks the candidate, or those speaking on his or her behalf, “What do you believe?” It’s done in good liturgical fashion, broken down into three questions, “Do you believe in God the Father? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God? Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?” The responses to those questions are nothing more nor less than the ancient Apostle’s Creed, which tradition calls “the Baptismal Symbol.”

In just a few moments, we will all recite that affirmation once again, and not a single one of us is likely to balk in the midst of our liturgy and say, like “doubting Thomas,” “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”[12] And yet I’ll bet that some of us might be thinking something very much along those lines as we dutifully repeat the creed. Many people in our world today, both outside and inside the church, do.

And there is nothing wrong with thinking that. Nothing at all. Because, you see, there are varieties of belief. Writing to the church in Corinth, Paul said, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”[13] I suggest to you that there are varieties of belief, because there are varying degrees of skepticism and doubt, but the same Christian faith throughout the church.

Faith and doubt are not opposites; they go hand in hand with one another. The very nature of faith requires that we acknowledge doubt, that we acknowledge that we believe with less than 100 percent certainty. We all wrestle with the challenges, questions, and blessings of life; faith in the midst of doubt and doubt examining faith are simply part of that struggle.

When we face those questions, whether they are our own or come from our children or from the seeker who visits our church or our skeptical neighbor down the street, our response should be the same as Eli’s,

“Who is calling me in the night?”

“Listen again and respond. If it is God, you will know.”

Our response should be the same as Philip’s,

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

“Well, come and see. Find out for your self.”

Healthy skepticism is a good thing that can serve as a safeguard against deception and manipulation, a kind of backstop for trust. But it must always be followed up with curiosity, with an attempt to get an answer to the questions it raises. We have to maintain, and encourage others to have, a curious mindset, valuing the importance of evidence and critical thinking.

When we pray that baptismal candidates will receive the spirit of judgment and wisdom, or the gift of discernment, this is what we mean. Christians should not simply ask the questions; we should also also seek the answers. We should always be willing to listen again, to come and see. We may not get the answers with certainty, but we will come closer to the Truth, and we are promised that the Truth will make us free.[14]



This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 14, 2024, to the people of Jerusalem Evangelical Lutheran Church, Seville, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was guest presider and preacher.

The lessons were from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Epiphany 2: 1 Samuel 3:1-10-20;
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; and St. John 1:43-51. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

The illustration is “Samuel Reading to Eli the Judgments of God Upon Eli’s House” by John Singleton Copley, 1780.


Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 310

[2] Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis:2006), page 231

[3] Sinclair Ferguson, What Is Discernment?, Ligonier Ministries, January 6, 2023, accessed January 13, 2024

[4] John 1:49 (NRSV)

[5] John 1:46 (NRSV)

[6] See Matthew 21:21 and Mark 11:23

[7] Matthew 14:31 (NRSV)

[8] John 20:27 (NRSV)

[9] 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 (NRSV)

[10] Meghna Chakrabarti, et al, Essential trust: How healthy skepticism builds trust, On Point, December 1, 2022, accessed January 13, 2024

[11] Leslie D. Weatherhead, The Christian Agnostic (Abingdon Press, Nashville:1965), page 30

[12] John 20:25 (NRSV)

[13] 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 (NRSV)

[14] John 8:32