Doubt. We don’t often see it as a good thing. And we especially don’t in the church.
If you’re like me, you may have grown up in a church space where you knew which questions were allowed and which weren’t. To ask, “Is Jesus real?” was acceptable; to say “I don’t think I believe in hell” was not.
We get told in the Bible to believe and not doubt. But for some church cultures, this has meant that, as soon as you hit adulthood, major doctrinal questions are off the table. To question is to doubt, and to doubt is to sin – with the implication that you just need to have a little more faith and just believe.
Like all good lies, this one has an element of truth. Faith always has an element of the unknowable, and we are told to trust in God’s goodness even though our human condition means we can’t fully understand it.
But more and more, I think we’re coming to terms with the idea that doubt is a normal part of the faith journey. And I think that’s a good thing.
Here are a few reasons why.
Doubt is normal
Every Christian feels doubt. Not every Christian will be on the same page about every doctrine at any given time. And it’s something we tend to forget to acknowledge.
This occurred to me recently when I was reading about some of the great Christian figures who experienced doubt. The names on the list were surprising, including people like C.S. Lewis, Mother Teresa, John Calvin and Martin Luther.
For someone like C. S. Lewis, doubts were triggered by his work as an apologist. Toward the end of his time as an active apologist, Lewis cautioned against relying on logic and argument at the expense of spirituality.
For Mother Teresa, her doubt grew out of feelings of isolation from others and from God. Maintaining her passion for her work during those times was difficult and often meant she called for prayer from others.
My most doubt-filled times tend to be when circumstances start piling up, when stress kicks in and when it feels like God isn’t working in my life the way I expect him to.
The common denominator is that we all feel it. But when you think about it, doubt shouldn’t surprise us. Faith, by nature, is mysterious.
How can we not have moments when we wonder?
When we share doubts, we can process them
When we’re in Christian company, expressing doubts can be difficult. Because we share a common set of beliefs, we can make the mistake of thinking that thinking differently from the herd is a no-no.
But when others share opinions or doubts, we should reward their honesty instead of judging their uncertainty.
Philip Yancey suggests having a “doubt friend” or a “doubt partner” as a safe person in whom to confide uncertainty. I know from my own experience that sharing my feelings of uncertainty makes them feel less overwhelming. And often, my mentors and friends can remind me of important truths when I forget them.
Ignoring doubts or pretending they’re not there means we never deal with them, and they will often become toxic. On the other hand, examining our doubts means we are developing our relationship with Christ.
Doubt can lead to growth
C.S. Lewis, the most quoted person in sermons ever, suggested the following in Mere Christianity:
Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding onto things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods… That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods ‘where they get off’, you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist.
Faith is like a muscle that needs to be exercised. We may not always have the answers to our questions, but the discipline of faith is holding onto the belief that we have despite our moods and seasons of life.
John Calvin suggested in his writings that doubt was inevitable. He felt that it was intrinsic in our humanity – because we are so removed from understanding God, it’s to be expected that we would doubt him:
For unbelief is so deeply rooted in our hearts, and we are so inclined to it, that not without hard struggle is each one able to persuade himself of what all confess with the mouth: namely, that God is faithful.
Thinking about our doubts and facing them is something that’s not shameful or a result of lack of faith, but a normal part of believing in Christ.
Doubts don’t have to be fatal to faith, but they do need to be addressed. Making a culture that allows for questions – and even outright doubts – means genuine expressions of faith.
Don’t you think God is bigger than our doubts?