There are two common responses to the experience of doubt. One is to conclude that the claim in question must not be true, which assumes that we have all the necessary information about the matter. Another response is to expect a coherent explanation for the claim, which assumes that we are missing some important information about the matter.
When I have personally encountered times where something within Christianity is not making sense, I am one who has assumed there must be something I am missing, rather than assuming the point in question must not be true. I think the reason I am inclined that way, is that over and over I have come to discover some aspect that I misunderstood or information that I was lacking.
When difficult ideas within the Christian Faith arise, one cause for concern is that rather than seeking out a coherent explanation, many have relied on their personal experience of God in order to have confidence accepting them. The experience of a close relationship with God is often essential to providing such confidence. However, the point of concern is that the relational experience can become a substitute for wrestling with ideas and coming to understand difficult aspects of the Faith. This approach will set some up for a second source of doubt, which is a feeling of distance from God. This experience is epitomized by the lack of a sense of God’s presence and as a result, some think, “I must not be very close to God…” Due to the apparent lack of closeness to God, one may wonder if their faith is even real.
In his blog post, Why it’s Good to Doubt God, Peter Enns describes the experience as, “A sense of painful alienation and distance from God that causes distress, anxiety, discouragement, despair, and depression. All Christians experience this sooner or later—some more intensely than others, some for longer times than others. But the feeling is the same: they lose their sense of closeness to God and conclude that they no longer have faith. And so they despair even more.”
A period of time like this might feel like what we find in Psalm 88:13–14: “But I, O LORD, have cried out to you for help, and in the morning my prayer comes before you. O LORD, why do you reject my soul? Why do you hide your face from me?”
This experience can arise during a time of suffering that goes on and on with apparently no response from God, or in the midst of a tragedy. In such times, understanding can seem out of reach. However, it is not only these circumstances that produce such a distant feeling, there could be much simpler reasons, such as a shift in how God is relating to us.
An example of what I am getting at is that it seems unlikely God would want us to continue in our faith with a false perception of who He is. Therefore, He would be inclined to bring about new insights and perspective. We can only work with the insight and perspective that we have, so if what we are expecting from God makes Him out to be a different sort of god, then the real God must work with us to bring about an accurate perspective and understanding of Himself. If God is challenging us to see Him differently, it would make sense that He might seem distant since change is often difficult and uncomfortable.
Often, the individual assumes there must be something deficient with them. But in reality, rather than there being a lack of faith, it is likely that some false ideas about God are just fading away. We are slowly working our way toward truth and a relationship with the real God, an important part of sanctification. It is the shortcomings of one’s current expectations that result in God seeming far off.
The sense of distance from God is extremely effective at pruning our reasoning and expectations. It is essential to focus on truth and conviction as our foundation, and to assess why our beliefs are true apart from our present experience. We also need to reevaluate what we expect from God, why we have our particular expectations, and where they came from.
The experience of this kind of doubt challenges both the foundation of our faith and the reason we worship. Is the faith we claim to have based on how we feel or on the evidence? Do we worship God because everything is going well in our life or God did what we asked, or do we worship God because of who He is?
I have dealt with the struggle to make sense of different ideas and claims of Christianity regularly, as I have spent time with people in ministry. But to be forthcoming, I want to acknowledge that I am not especially familiar with God feeling absent; it is not something I have experienced on a deep level. I have gone through a couple emotional times where it feels like God isn't there, but I know others have endured much darker times. That being said, I will keep my thoughts on this point minimal here, recognizing that others have much more insight on the topic.
What I am currently struck by is what seems to be a point of relationship between both causes of doubt, in that either way we lose false ideas we have assumed or held onto about God. It is necessary to recognize that there is more to learn and that we need to pursue a deeper understanding. If we look to overcome a lack of confidence in the factual truth of our faith by means of a sense of closeness with God, then what happens when that experience of closeness fades into a sense of distance? We will find ourselves experiencing doubt in both areas and it will seem like our faith is being assaulted from all directions. Again, it is only real understanding that will satisfy any doubts, substitutes will only push it down the road.
It turns out that both causes of doubt are the result of a lack of understanding. We don’t understand how something makes sense, or we have a misunderstanding of God’s relationship to us in this life. But these also come back to false expectations. We expect our relationship with God to look or feel a certain way, or we expect everything to make sense to us in spite of the small slice of history that we actually understand and the slight percentage of information that we actually possess. Where did we get such expectations? A passionate testimony we heard at a youth retreat? Some Sunday school teacher when we were a child? From someone we saw on TV? Perhaps we were told that the “Gospel” is simple enough for a child to understand, which is true enough, but I’m betting they didn't say the same about “Christianity.”
Christianity is a complex system of beliefs and concepts which can be difficult to understand accurately or fit together. That being said, there is no sense in pretending things make sense if they actually don’t. It is not realistic to think that we don’t misunderstand anything, or that we aren't missing something – as if we possess all the important information. The reality is that things will not make sense sometimes, based on the information we have, because we actually are missing something. It would be unwise to assume that there is not more to it than we are aware of.
Ultimately, doubt is the catalyst by which we prune our own ideas about God and come into a clearer understanding of the true God. Sincere doubt is not weakness or a lack of faith, rather it is a faith which desires to be built on something real. Engaging such doubt is a catalyst for growth.
(In Part 3, I will address the use of "doubt" in the New Testament.)