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the ininuating handkerchief

The Insinuating Handkerchief

A little insinuation and the culmination of circumstances were all it took to seal her death.

And a handkerchief. That’s what did it. The handkerchief.

In Shakespeare’s classic telling of Othello, a Moorish general of Venice fell prey to the doubtful suggestions of his unknown enemy, Iago. The claim was that Othello’s wife Desdemona was secretly involved with his captain—a claim that was categorically untrue. Without actual proof of infidelity, Iago was forced to maneuver Othello through a well-designed scheme of suggestion and coincidence. But when Desdemona dropped her treasured handkerchief, Iago seized the opportunity and later presented it as the lying proof that sealed her fate. Sadly, the tragedy of the play is this: had Othello trusted what he knew of his wife, that is to say, what he knew of her character, the story would have ended differently. Instead, Othello let doubt clutch his heart—doubt that ultimately led him to take her life.

Doubting What We Know

The English word for doubt has been defined as “the state of uncertainty with regard to the truth or reality of anything; undecidedness of belief or opinion.”[1] It is characterized by uncertainty and a lingering sense of suspicion. In Shakespeare’s play, Othello heeded the suggestions of doubt. Yet, at the base of his doubt concerning Desdemona’s actions was the deeper doubt concerning her character. In this way the doubt of Othello mirrors that of many believers. The problem with doubt then, is that often, instead of examining the evidence, we question the character of God.[2] There is a difference. One falls in the way of trust; the other is a matter of assumption and/or accusation.

The temptation of course, is to assume that doubt arises from supposed inconsistencies in the Word, etc. That’s not true.[3] (Thus Augustine’s admonition: “Do not then seek to understand in order to believe, but believe in order to understand”.)[4]  In matters of doubt it is not necessarily the Word that is contested; rather, it is the character upon which that Word rests. If I believe that He is faithful, if I believe His Word is fixed in the heavens (Matthew 24:35; Ps. 119:89; Isa. 40:8; 1 Pet. 1:23, 25), then the question of whether or not He will do thus and such is no longer an issue. “Of course He will do as He has said—it is His nature.” But immediately I doubt His character, the entire truth of His Word is suspect and I begin to worry. In matters of doubt the issue is not “do you believe His Word;” rather, the question is “do you believe the One who gave the promise.”

And when, like Othello we demand of God “the ocular proof,” the Scripture replies that we are to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). Ours is not a faith founded in the nebulous idea of faith for the sake of faith; no, our faith has its root in the Person of God. Therefore our discussion of doubt must begin and end at His feet.

Doubters Among Us

Sometimes I think we present the church as an unsafe place for those who doubt. As if God is somehow offended by our wrestling in the fallen world. But this side of heaven “it cannot indeed be otherwise, but that through the infirmity of our flesh we must be tossed by various temptations, which are like engines employed to shake our confidence; so that no one is found who does not vacillate and tremble according to the feeling of his flesh; but temptations of this kind are at length to be overcome by faith. The case is the same as with a tree, which has struck firm roots; it shakes, indeed, through the blowing of the wind, but is not rooted up; on the contrary, it remains firm in its own place.[5] His Word is clear: we are to “have mercy on those who doubt,” we are to “save others by snatching them out of the fire” and “to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.” (Jude 22–25) When Jesus ascended, He left behind Him the Great Commission, entrusting the Gospel to those who worshiped and “some [who] doubted” (Matthew 28:17).

There will always be those who wrestle with deep matters of faith and doubt. But our God is faithful to keep that which has been committed to Him; He will not abandon us on the rough sea of doubt. Indeed, “every possible trial to the child of God is a masterpiece of strategy of the Captain of his salvation for his good.[6] And Captain that He is, He is Himself anchor for the soul.

“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of His glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 24-25)

[1] Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM (v.

[2] See Gideon’s response to God in Judges 6:11-18

[3] See also John 20:29

[4] Saint Thomas Aquinas and John Henry Newman, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected Out of the Works of the Fathers, Volume 4: St. John (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1845), 261.

[5] John Calvin and John Owen, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 284.

[6] Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), Jas 1:2.

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