Have you ever been told that, “If you had real faith you wouldn't doubt”? Or perhaps you have thought, “Maybe I’m not serious about God because I have all these doubts…”
There are a couple key reasons for our doubts about God or Christianity. One is simply a lack of confidence and the other is a sense that God is distant. In this post I will address doubt in relation to a lack of confidence. I will address the other source of doubt, as well as the use of the word “doubt” in the New Testament in parts 2 and 3; so hold on if you are wondering why I don’t address those things here – it’s coming.
When Christians experience “doubts,” it is generally about a particular idea or aspect of Christianity. In its simplest form, doubt amounts to a lack of confidence or sense of uncertainty. We can experience a lack of confidence about any number of things. Doubts can pertain to whether God really cares about us, the purpose of prayer, a specific doctrine like the Trinity or Hell, God’s existence or God’s goodness, how Jesus could be the way or the historical accuracy of the Bible.
During such times, some will assume there is either something wrong with them or that they are doing something wrong. Many have the idea that doubt destroys faith, because they may have heard that “doubt is the enemy of faith” some time ago. Therefore, when they find themselves unsure about some aspect of Christianity, they will think: maybe I’m not really committed, maybe my faith isn't real, maybe I don’t pray enough, or come up with something else they aren't “doing.”
I think all of these ideas are misguided because, first of all, the assumption is that doubt is a bad thing which serves no purpose; and secondly, because it assumes doubt is due to some failure on our part, rather than a natural part of wrestling with truth. In fact, I think this lack of confidence is largely due to a lack of teaching about the things we actually experience doubts about. Hopefully it is not surprising that there are a vast number of legitimate questions pertaining to Christian beliefs, as well as the Bible. If someone feels like there isn't much of an answer to some of them, then the natural thing would be to experience some doubt.
If you do not consider yourself a Christian, then you have likely experienced some doubt about the entire Christian Faith, rather than just an aspect. I would expect this is partly because when you had questions, you heard explanations you found to be completely unsatisfying and lacking substance. It is likely that you determined it was a waste of time to even ask anymore.
I say this due to the sad reality that when difficult questions are raised about the Christian Faith, Christians have been known to give answers that result in the questioner wishing they had never asked. Some answers which have been known to pop up include: you just have to accept it; you just need more faith; you just have to pray about it; we shouldn't question God; or even worse, faith is not supposed to make sense… Some are worse than others, but none of these responses answer the question – any question at all.
Some of us have heard similar answers and became so disenchanted that we lost interest in Christianity. If that’s your experience, have you ever thought that such responses come from people who simply don’t know the answer either? Think about it this way, if I was to ask you a question about something you have studied, perhaps your major in college, and you knew the answer to my particular question, wouldn't you explain the aspect that I found confusing? I think it is safe to say that this would be the natural thing to do as a normal human being. So what does this mean about someone who does not answer the question and instead makes it seem like there isn't anything worth thinking about? It would seem that they lack understanding and insight as well, but are not willing to admit it. At least the person expressing their doubts is honest enough to reveal the fact that they don’t understand something or are confused.
The more we buy into negative responses to doubt, when we encounter our own doubts, we will be inclined to just hope it will go away rather than discuss it. If it doesn't, then we may enter into some form of self-blame; so now we are back to things like: maybe I’m not really committed, my faith must be weak, or I just need to be more serious. Again, thinking if we really had faith then we wouldn't have these doubts.
Most commonly, however, we simply are not aware of the information which is necessary to make sense of what we find confusing. If you think about the so called “Doubting Thomas,” he was given the information needed in order for him to believe with confidence. This is just how things work with our minds, because none of us want to believe something that turns out to be false.
Thank God that we have the natural capacity to doubt and also to address those doubts. If your friend or child expresses doubts about Christianity, be thankful that they don’t just accept whatever they hear, because they will hear some crazy things in our society and even in churches. It is doubt that enables us to identify false teaching, because we wouldn't even have thought twice about it if not for a little skepticism, which prompts us to look into it. Suddenly, questioning things can become a strength. It is also one’s doubt about the goodness of God that will ultimately lead them to an understanding of God’s goodness. There is a tremendous difference between accepting something as a reality and understanding that reality.
In fact, St. Augustine is credited with having once said, “Doubt is but an element of faith.” That doesn't sound like he viewed it as a negative thing to be avoided. If we think about why anyone would say this, it is important to see the potential result of our doubts. Doubts naturally lead us to question things. Asking questions will help us find answers, we would hope. As we find more answers and things make sense, this leads to understanding. So if everything just magically made sense to us and we never questioned and looked into anything, then we would never gain true understanding.
However, it is important to realize that there are different kinds of doubt: Skeptical and Sincere. Sincere doubt says, “I don’t understand this,” and seeks an answer. Skeptical doubt is suspicious and says “I don’t buy it.” Such doubt will often be incredulous and add the qualifying statement, “There is no way that could make sense.” Skeptical doubt assumes there is no answer.
Sincere doubt can arise from a dissatisfaction with the answers we have heard, which causes us to insist on an answer that actually pertains to the question, rather than something irrelevant or an emotional appeal. For example, when asked why we believe in God or Jesus, an answer to the effect of: “I just know in my heart,” will be quite frustrating to someone who is actually interested in an answer and laughable to the critic. It is easy to recognize that people of every religion could say the same thing – because they do.
In Your God Is Too Safe , Mark Buchanan gives further insight into this when he states “Sometimes to doubt is to merely insist that God be taken seriously not frivolously, to insist that our faith is placed in and upheld by something other than seeming conjuring tricks.” If only we could recognize this when we are experiencing doubt. It seems if we understood that it was the lack of concrete reasoning that was causing our lack of confidence, then we would know what we should be looking for in order to sort through the particular idea we are struggling with.
Doubt should motivate us to seek out real answers.
Where would we be without doubt? If we did not question things, wouldn't we just accept them blindly, relying on what we call blind faith? It seems to me, we would accept everything if we didn't doubt at least sometimes. That’s a good method for believing false ideas.
Not only would we regularly believe false things, there would be no discussion and not much learning. Without doubt, we would simply accept any idea we heard without question and without any reasons to accept it. But isn't a key reason for doubt the fact that something is not making sense? We think about a few ideas and find it difficult to see how they fit together; it might even appear that there is a contradiction. This naturally results in a lack of confidence that something is really true.
To go on pretending that the things we don’t understand and which cause us to experience doubts are no big deal, does not benefit anyone. Our doubts will reveal how seriously we take our faith. I don’t mean the doubt itself, but how we handle that doubt – whatever it might be. To handle a doubt that arises by using it as motivation to look into a topic, or research how others have explained a question, suggests that we are serious about understanding our faith. On the other hand, to use our doubts to justify not taking our faith seriously is the direct opposite of the purpose of the doubt itself.
It is because of our doubts that we discover the solid ground to base our faith on. This is not the result of some lack of doubt, it is the result of seeking truth, which our doubts compelled us to do. A faith which has never looked doubt in the eye is often a faith which is naïve and presumptive. It is the faith which has faced its own questions and challenges that will ultimately be confident and steadfast, because it has been, so to speak, refined by the fire.
You may have heard that the remedy for doubt is faith, but I think the real remedy is understanding. However, the pursuit of understanding is the result of taking our faith seriously. It is important to seek out people with whom it is safe to wrestle with questions, so that ultimately we will come through the process of not only clarifying our beliefs, but owning our own faith.
The worst thing we can do with our questions is to act like they don’t matter or don’t exist. In the end, gaining a deeper understanding will strengthen our faith and produce confidence.
If not for doubts, we would be left with a faith deprived of understanding.