At the start of 2013, at a conference in Christchurch in New Zealand, I saw something simple but profound: the power of talking about things. There were a number of interviews where people spoke frankly about some difficult issues they had lived with, or were living with, as Christians.
Someone spoke about walking away from Christ for a long time, another person talked honestly about temptations they faced, someone else gave a frank testimony on the darkness of being a Christian with depression.
Speaking about these things brings them out into the open, into the light—taking away some of the power they have when they operate in the darkness.
For this very reason, doubt is something we evangelical Christians need to get talking about. I often think doubt is like the topic of pornography was 15 years ago—a lot of people were struggling with it, but we hardly ever spoke of it. We have come at least part of the way on the pornography issue, but I’m not sure we are doing so well with doubt. I have been close to throwing away my faith during a time of serious doubt, so I think it’s worth spending a few pages talking about doubt and the Christian life.
Biblical doubters and defining doubt
To start off, we should ask: what is doubt, really? We know it when we experience it, but sometimes we need to get a little more exact. Doubt is not quite the same as a lack of assurance, which is thinking that the God who is there might not accept us. The kind of doubt I am talking about is related to that, but different. It is when our doubt is focused not on whether we can be acceptable to God or whether our faith is genuine, but rather on God himself—whether he is in fact there at all, or what his character is really like.
Although Christianity is sometimes portrayed as an unthinking, monotonous, and even unrealistic faith, the Bible has quite a lot to say about doubt. Christianity clearly has much to do with faith at its core, yet doubt gets very good coverage in the Scriptures. Looking at some of the serious doubters of the Bible can help us understand what doubt is.
Job is a righteous man who loves God a lot (Job 1). But he goes through extreme suffering: he loses almost everything he has, including his children, and then gets a serious skin disease to top it all off. As we read his story, we know that his suffering came upon him “without reason” (Job 2:3). Job himself is pretty sure that he is blameless—in other words, when it comes to this suffering, he hasn’t done anything to particularly deserve it. But he still suffers enormously. Job’s experience of suffering contradicts what he knows about God—he knows God is just and good, but his experience doesn’t seem to fit with that. So he starts doubting.
The Preacher/Teacher of Ecclesiastes suffers a different kind of doubt. He looks around at what happens in the world, and he sees the righteous perish but the wicked live long (Eccl 7:15). He knows God is in control, yet the righteous and the sinner, the wise and the fool, all end up with the same fate (Eccl 9:1-3). All this contradicts what he expects the world to be like if God is good, so he doubts whether there is really any meaning at all in life “under the sun” (Eccl 1:2-3, 12:8).
The New Testament’s most prominent doubters are Jesus’ disciples. At one point they see Jesus after he’s been raised from the dead, and they think he might be a ghost. Doubts arose in their minds (Luke 24:37-38). Like us, they weren’t used to seeing dead men live again. In fact, all of the longer resurrection accounts in the Gospels feature the doubts of Jesus’ closest followers (Matt 28:17; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:24-29). The disciples’ experience of Jesus at that point contradicted what they thought happened in the world. This caused them to seriously doubt what they were seeing.
The common factor with all these doubters is their experience of contradiction. So a possible biblical definition of doubt might go something like: the disquieting uncertainty arising from experiences that contradict our understanding of God and his world.
In other words, doubt is the unsettling that happens to us when we experience things that don’t fit with what we understand of God and/or his creation.
Sometimes this might happen because something we believe about God or the world is just plain wrong—we might have thought the world was flat, but then found we didn’t sail off the edge of it into space. In that sort of case, our doubts might be pointing us to the fact that we need to change what we think. But I strongly suggest that sometimes we might doubt even things that are true, because they in some way contradict what we expect or contradict our limited understanding—this was the case for Jesus’ disciples and the resurrection.
Why does doubt happen?
If the biblical picture of humans is right, we would actually expect that we might doubt true things too. According to the Bible, we are:
- Creatures: You are not God. Neither am I. And omniscience—knowing all things—is an attribute of God, not of humans. That is why Paul says in Romans 11:34: “Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counsellor?” God is God, we are not—we don’t know everything, and we can’t always see the big picture. Sometimes that means we don’t understand things, and it leads us to doubt. Remembering we are limited creatures, who can’t see the whole picture, takes a fair dose of humility in our culture, but it also provides a fair dose of reality.
- Waiting creatures: We are in a time between the ages. Jesus’ resurrection has brought the future into the present in a vital way, but we are not there yet. As we noted earlier, all the longer descriptions of the resurrection in the Gospels have the disciples doubting, even after Jesus has been raised, and in some cases when he was right in front of them. Even the Spirit who shines God’s light into our hearts doesn’t take away all our uncertainties. Paul says the Spirit helps us in our weakness as we wait for Jesus’ return (Rom 8:26-27); he doesn’t say the Spirit takes away our weakness. We are not at the top of the mountain yet, so we don’t have the full panoramic view—we can see, but we can’t see everything.
- Sinful waiting creatures: Doubt is not always treated as sin in the Scriptures, and is not simply the result of sin. But it can still be associated with sin. Think about Genesis 3. The snake says to Eve that if she eats the fruit “You will not surely die” (v. 5). God had said they would surely die, so the snake is encouraging them to doubt God’s truthfulness. The snake also encourages doubt of the goodness of God, implying God is holding back something good from them (v. 5). The snake gives Eve food for her doubt, and in the end she and her husband go with that rather than with God—that is sin in a nutshell. An important way sin can be connected to doubt is through pride. It is not at all uncommon in our pride to be overconfident in our own ability to know, so that we don’t recognize that we need to be humble before God if we are going to understand him. That is part of what it means to be a creature, but in our pride we often miss it.
We are sinful waiting creatures. So it’s not surprising we experience doubt sometimes, nor if those around us experience it.
Doubt happens, then, for reasons that make sense within the Christian world view of what it means to be human. But does that mean it’s a good thing, or something to put up with? Something we should shut down, or something we should encourage? Is doubt something we should defend?
I mentioned earlier that generally evangelical Christians don’t do well at talking about doubt, which is what gives it much of its power. But often when we do talk about it, one of two things happens.
On the one hand, doubt gets made into the ultimate virtue—the epitome of humility, essential to Christian maturity, to be encouraged and even worn as a badge—certainty, after all, is certainly a sin.
On the other hand (perhaps in reaction to the idea that doubt is a virtue), doubt gets slammed as something that is in fact arrogant in itself, and a sign of immaturity.
So is doubt good or not? And by saying we are likely, as Christians, to experience it, am I in fact defending doubt? Should I be?
I think the answer has to be yes and no. Let me show you what I mean.
We should defend doubt because of the example of Jesus. It is very clear from the New Testament that Jesus is the perfect human being. This is most explicit perhaps in Hebrews, but it is interesting that Hebrews presents Jesus as the perfect human being in language that seems to recall his experience of suffering in the garden of Gethsemane (Heb 2:5-18, 4:15, 5:7-10).
In Gethsemane, the perfect man is in a state of great anxiety, deeply sorrowful and troubled (Mark 14:32-36). Throughout Mark, Jesus repeatedly says that nothing is impossible with God (Mark 9:23, 10:27), but here in Gethsemane he prays that if it is possible God might take this cup from him. However, he immediately adds “Yet not what I will, but what you will”. This scene is full of emotion, and Jesus’ anxiety has every appearance of being a real experience of contradiction—his Father loves him and he is holy, has the ability to save him from this hour, and yet he is entering into an experience of abandonment in judgement.
This sense of abandonment reaches its heights at his cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). He is echoing the words of the Psalmist who also felt the contradiction between experience and his knowledge of God’s love and faithfulness (Ps 22:1). In Jesus’ cry, we see the perfect human being experiencing contradiction at its fullest. His example is clearly faith in the face of contradiction. Yet, most importantly, it is emphatically not escape from the experience of contradiction. He has to live through the contradiction.
Jesus, the perfect Spirit-filled human being, experienced contradiction (and he didn’t even have personal sinfulness added into the mix, as the rest of us do). So why would we expect to avoid it? Christians can expect contradiction to be a real, and difficult, experience—one which might well lead to doubt. And that should give us serious pause before labelling it a symptom of spiritual immaturity or arrogance.
But, conversely, we don’t want to embrace doubt, but endure it. It is a contradiction, not a crown.
It’s a little like suffering. Suffering comes on people for all kinds of reasons: because of mistakes they have made, because of the sin of people around them, because the world is messed up, or sometimes a combination of these. Suffering can clearly be something that God works through to help people grow, being used for good. But there would be something incredibly ugly about saying to someone who is going through intense suffering, “Congratulations, that’s awesome, you are obviously really mature in your faith”. No, suffering is not good in itself; we lament it, endure it, and (hopefully) trust God will somehow work good through it. Doubt is a lot like that—to be endured in the hope that God will work through it, but not to be celebrated as a virtue or embraced in and of itself. So, while we should defend doubt as a likely reality for Christians, we shouldn’t defend it as a virtue.
How do we deal with doubt?
Now it’s time for the rubber to hit the road. Doubt is something we go through, so how do we go through it in the best way possible? And how do we help others who are going through it? I want to summarize a few of the implications of what we’ve seen, mixed in with my own personal reflections based on going through an intense time of doubt at theological college, when I nearly gave up belief in God altogether.
DON’T BE SURPRISED
As we have seen, we are all sinful waiting creatures. We shouldn’t be that surprised if we experience doubt at times.
And we really shouldn’t be surprised if people in our churches experience doubt. Jude 1:22 says: “have mercy on those who doubt”. The last thing someone who is experiencing doubt needs is to be told to just get over it. It’s not that simple. If someone talks to you about doubt, listen to them. Even if you don’t understand what they are going through, offer to try to help them through it. Offer to pray for them, take their questions seriously, and help them talk to others who might be able to help. That kind of love can make a big difference to someone who is doubting, and can remind them that Christians aren’t afraid to face tough questions together. My brothers and sisters who took me seriously in my doubt didn’t ignore it, or simply tell me to get over it, but rather offered to work through it with me, loving me along the way. It was a powerful testimony to the strength of their own faith and the realism it gave them.
DON’T BE A LONER
If you are in the midst of doubt, please do talk to someone. As I said earlier, no-one seems to talk about it in churches. But when you do talk to someone you trust, it often takes some of the power out of doubt, and gives you some perspective. Talking about my doubt, humanly speaking, is why I am still a Christian today (and helped me to be much more objective than I would have been otherwise). Talk to someone, and if they don’t listen then talk to someone else!
DON’T BE PROUD
Even though we shouldn’t be surprised if we experience doubt, we shouldn’t be proud of it either. As I have already said, doubt is sometimes treated like it is the only way to be humble. It’s not. When you are sick you don’t say, “Hey, I’m really glad I’m sick”. No, you ask, “How can I get better?” Doubt is a bit like that—it is something we should be looking to work through, not wallow in.
And sometimes we need to just be humble enough to really listen to the answers from Scripture, remembering we don’t actually know everything already and that Scripture just might have something still to show us. From my experience, that can be a hard but necessary pill to swallow, and calls for constant attitude checks. It can also help to remember that Christians have been doubting and working through doubt for a long time—you can be confident you are not the first, nor are you the only one going through it.
DON’T BE SCARED
Look into your questions! Sometimes doubt has a big hold on us simply because we haven’t done the hard work of thinking through our faith. Because Christians have been doubting for a long time now, it is extremely likely your questions (or very similar ones) have been worried about before. Don’t be scared—Christianity has been found able to stand up to numerous challenges over the past two thousand years. So write (or type) your questions down and look into them. I found this particularly helpful in terms of getting some perspective on my own doubts, often realizing I wasn’t quite as original or clever a doubter as I had thought.
And do keep reading your Bible—that sort of discipline actually does help, even when sometimes it doesn’t feel like it.
DON’T FORGET THE MOST IMPORTANT THING
Paul says this in 1 Corinthians 13:12:
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
We only see things blurrily now, and we only see in part. It won’t be like this forever—the day will come when we will know fully. But while we are waiting, God knows us already. Remember who started your relationship with God—it was him, not you. The fact that God knows us is actually even more important than whether we feel like we know him at any particular point in time.
When you are in the deepest place of doubt, it can feel like everything is dark all around you. It certainly felt like that for me—in fact I spent many an early morning sitting on the stairs in the dark, wrestling with the thoughts going around and around inside my head. In that situation, without really realizing it, my eyes had subtly closed. All seemed dark. But I now think that the light of God’s love in Jesus was actually still shining all around me.
So why not ask God to help you open your eyes again? The last lines of ‘Who Am I?’ by Dietrich Bonhoeffer sum it up in one of the most beautiful ways I have heard. He wrote this poem in a Nazi prison, not long before he was killed. He was reflecting on the difference between the impression he gave that he had it all together, and the reality that he was eaten up with questions and doubt. But he finished the poem with words that have become a regular prayer for me:
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!