Word Study #2: “doubt” vs. “unfaithfulness”

The usual way to communicate the opposite of a word, in the Greek language, is to add an “a” as a negative prefix: hence, “pistos“, faithful (see last week’s post), becomes “apistos“, unfaithful. Unfortunately, when people begin to “label” each other and each other’s ideas, it is not that simple. Due to changes in the English language over the course of time, the concept of “doubt” has crept in to confuse the situation, and grossly distorted the picture. Many people assume that “doubt” indicates a perverse, deliberate refusal to “believe,” (read, “accept the required dogma”), making it essentially synonymous with “unbelief.” This has no basis in the original language.

If you will look for “doubt” in Young’s concordance, you will see that the term has been used to translate four different Greek words, which are themselves quite distinct from one another. Interestingly, not one of these describes a situation where a person has taken a deliberate stand against faithfulness. Mostly, the individuals are puzzled, and trying to make sense out of a confusing event. Uncertainty, for which no one is scolded, is much more in evidence than the outright rejection of a message. We must be just as careful not to confuse these ideas.

The first of the terms that has been translated “doubt” is aporeomai. Historically, it conveyed a sense of utter bewilderment, of being at a loss to understand something. In the New Testament, it appears only four times: in John 13, when the disciples were trying to figure out who the betrayer would be; in Acts 25:20, when Festus confesses to Herod that he has no clue what charge to write, upon remanding Paul to Rome; in Galatians 4:20 of Paul’s uncertainty as to the continued faithfulness of those brethren; and II Corinthians 4:8 when he speaks of his own confusion. “Baffled” might convey the thought in more modern language.

Diakrino, by far the most common of the four, referred historically to discussion or debate, to discernment or evaluation. Here again, there is no negative connotation. It is used of Peter trying to figure out his vision, prior to visiting Cornelius (Acts 10:20 and 11:12); of the discernment required in dealing with the issue of meat offered to idols (Romans 14:23); and the restriction of discussions requiring discernment to mature believers (Romans 14:1). Jesus uses it in the statements about moving mountains (Matt.21 and Mark 11), indicating that these are not “playthings” for discussion.  Perhaps one of the most significant is James 1:6 — where the request for wisdom is plainly intended to be used for instructions for action, and not just “ammunition” for debate or argument. The flavor, consistently, is discernment, in an effort to be faithful.

Diaporeo is more similar to aporeomai, but is considerably stronger. It refers to a matter for agitated discussion. It describes the confusion of the crowd at Pentecost, (Acts 2), trying to understand what is happening; and also the confusion among the temple authorities when (Acts 5) the apostles were not found in prison where they had been locked up so carefully. It refers to Herod’s confusion, when he finally decided that Jesus must be a resurrected or reincarnated John the Baptist, and the bewildered reaction of the women at the empty tomb (Lk.24:4). It is used together with aporeomai in II Corinthians 4:8, as the more severe of the two terms.

Distazo is used only twice in the New Testament. Jesus uses it to Peter in Matt.14:31, when the latter floundered in his attempt to walk on the water. This has frequently been read as a rebuke, but rightly understood in the historical context of the word, “hesitation, uncertainty”, it sounds more like a critique than a criticism: “You almost made it!” Uncertainty definitely fits the other use, the resurrection scene where some were “uncertain.”

The important point is that none of these indicates a refusal of faithfulness.

Quite apart from all of these is apistia (noun), and its related apisteo (verb) and apistos (adjective) forms. Look at the very different flavor of the historical uses: (v) to disbelieve, distrust, suspect; (n) faithlessness, treachery, unbelief, disobedience; (a) untrustworthy, incredible, suspicious, disobedient, disloyal, faithless.
The verb form appears in the New Testament seven times, the noun twelve, and the adjective ten.
It refers to outright rejection of Jesus and his message (the home-folks at Nazareth, or the present state of Jewish opponents); the ancient Hebrews who did not enter the Promised Land; Paul’s description of his own days as a persecutor.
Sometimes it is related to ignorance: as in Paul’s former case, or that of an unbelieving spouse (I Corinthians 7). Jesus connected it to outright disobedience in the case of the slave-overseer who abused his subordinates. Paul frequently uses the two terms in close association.
In almost every instance, it constitutes a deliberate rejection of God’s ways, by the deliberate choice of disobedience.

The remedy is in a joint effort among the brotherhood (Hebrews 3:12-14.) It requires mutual support and daily “coaching” to hang on and to avoid the deception which would lead to unfaithfulness.

So what of poor Thomas, who has been made a scapegoat through many generations as “the doubter”? Which of these words do you think applied to him? And in what way? Was Jesus scolding him for not being gullible, and immediately accepting the word of what seemed to him to be delusional reports? I don’t believe he was. To get the whole story, we need to look back at the account of Thomas at the time of Lazarus’ death. I submit that Thomas was the most faithful of them all, on this occasion. Everyone had tried to dissuade Jesus from returning to Judea, knowing that it was suicide to do so. But he was adamant, so Thomas spoke up –“Let’s all go along –we might as well die with him.” That’s faithfulness! and Jesus had not forgotten that scene. After the resurrection, he knew what Thomas needed in order to believe — and provided it. Jesus’ admonition was in the present tense: “Don’t become unfaithful, but faithful!”

Perhaps only together can we rightly discern between necessary caution and unfaithful refusal. Maybe that’s yet another reason why our gracious Lord has given us to each other!

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