Why It’s ok to Doubt

“It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.” [Dostoyevsky quoted in Harold Victor Martin, Kierkegaard, the Melancholy Dane (1950)]

A key responsibility of a Christian leader and teacher is to present the truth of the gospel with confidence. But if the church leader is honest with themselves, they will know that they too carry serious doubts. How many churches have a healthy culture that allows people to express their doubts?

All Christians will be endangered by doubt and we must realise that this is normal. We will ask ourselves questions about the relevance of our theology, and even the existence of the object of our theology (God). Karl Barth defines doubt as ‘swaying and staggering between Yes and No.’ Doubt may arise from spiritual attack, or church disunity, ongoing secret sins of the theologian and the cognitive dissonance that results, self righteousness, or just a lack of love for other people. Doubt is real, one should have a healthy perspective on it, not entertain it necessarily – have a healthy dash of shame about it – but don’t despair, rather wait while hoping for Jesus to return.

Church leaders must be aware of the damage done in churches that don’t allow space for individuals to externalise or discuss their doubt. There’s nothing that irritates me more than hearing about Christians who have been dismissed by their pious pastor or overly religious congregation members as ‘liberal’ or ‘flakey’ because they admitted to doubting this or that.

The church where I minister, Merri Creek Anglican, seeks to promote honesty in the community about our doubts. Having doubts is not a sign of being a bad Christian. Nor is it a disqualification for ministry. Rather, it’s a sign that you’re a real Human Being living in the ‘now but not yet’ (Romans 8:18-30); it is the reality of worshipping an invisible God. Only in Heaven will faith and doubt be gone, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

It is important, however, in the midst of your doubts, to humbly trust in Jesus. There is a danger, as the Apostle James writes, that we will be “like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6). The “wave” occurs, when we let the doubts dominate our thoughts.

So how can we manage our doubts? It might sound counterintuitive, but when a person tells a Christian friend that they, for example, doubt the bodily resurrection, or have shifted away from orthodoxy on sexual ethics, or question the teaching of the Apostle Paul, they have more chance of persisting with their faith in the long term than if they kept their doubts private. Externalising doubts enables us to process our thoughts in a supportive Christian context.

On the other hand, when we suppress or hide our doubts, and never speak them out loud to someone in our Christian community, there is a resulting cognitive dissonance. This dissonance is between (1) the mask we put on – which is the confident faith we think we are supposed to show to other people; and (2) the truth behind the mask – the very real doubts we privately harbour about our faith. Thus we experience a deep psychological clash: we are torn up inside, and end up feeling depressed or disillusioned, and have an existential crisis.

In an attempt to resolve this dissonance we say to ourselves: “I’m living a lie to my Christian community, I’m pretending to believe what they (supposedly) all believe, I’m in a different theological place to my congregation, I don’t feel like I belong here anymore.” Once we’ve come to this decision, we usually slide out of church gradually, coming less and less, checking out other churches who might affirm my doubts or changing theology. Or perhaps we will find another community that is not ‘church’ but which will accept us.

This could have all been avoided, if only we talked openly about our doubts to someone, in the safety of a loving and humble church community.

Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay writes:

Certainty denies the very essence of faith. It is the impenetrability of life’s mysteries that encourages our leaps of faith not merely into the unknown, but into the unknowable. That’s why doubt is the engine that propels and sustains faith. We believe (in anything) precisely because we doubt. This is the great paradox of faith: we yearn to know but cannot know, so we construct or accept, ready-made from an established institution, a set of beliefs that satisfy our need to make sense of what’s going on. If it’s not religious belief, it might be astrology, the free market, feng shui, superstition, science, a particular psychological or philosophical orientation – Buddhist, Freudian, Jungian, humanist – or a moral code we believe will make for a good life and, by extension, a better world … But if we knew as objective facts the answers that faith supplies, there would be no need for faith. And if faith – that mystical, clouded, elusive yearning – is corrupted by the arrogance of certainty, it ceases to be faith and becomes mere delusion … The religious truth-seeker, the pilgrim, yearns to see with the eye of faith but constantly falters. The plea from the father of a sick child healed by Jesus, quoted in Mark’s gospel, captures the idea perfectly: ‘I believe; help my unbelief’.

So it is perfectly reasonable and healthy to be a believer who acknowledges their doubts. The highly regarded Emeritus Professor of philosophy from Oxford University, Richard Swinburne, explains that the relationship between faith and doubt is about probabilities. Scientists and engineers work in this faith–doubt paradigm: they create a rocket, for example, and send it to the moon, taking a risk with the lives of the astronauts and billions of dollars of tax payer’s money. They do this having faith in their calculations and the quality of work of the engineers: they believe that it will ‘probably’ get to the moon and back without the astronauts being killed.

A similar argument can be made about faith in God. Just as the scientists and engineers believe their rocket will probably work – the believer trusts that their faith will probably work. The scientists and engineers move beyond believing that their theories work, to believing in their theories by building the rocket. Similarly, Swinburne says we need to consider the difference between believing that there is a god verses believing in God. Believing that there is a god is believing that this state of affairs is true – but you might not respond to this belief. Religion goes beyond this because it requires you to believe in something.

Believing in God means trusting and relying on God. This belief directs your actions – you are guided by your God and your religion. If you were an atheist then it would be foolish to let religion guide your life.

But if you were somewhat unsure, but also somewhat persuaded, then you might think to yourself: ‘if Christianity is probably true, and it matters to me to live a good life, a worthwhile risk for me to take is to invest my life in this religion. I can let it guide my life. I will put my trust in the God of the Bible.’ Swinburne says that this is your calculated risk for a better life – the better life of a Christian disciple who worships their creator, serves other people in dependance on God, participates in the Christian community and lives in an other person centred way – not to mention the better life in eternity with God.

So faith and doubt are natural bedfellows. Don’t feel ashamed or worried if you doubt. This is perfectly normal for any believer who is honest with themselves.

An exercise to help you is to write down all your doubts and share one of them with a Christian friend you trust.

Perhaps you could have a service of lament that has an open mic time of public sharing of doubts?

3 thoughts on “Why It’s ok to Doubt

  1. Peter, I’ve already commented via your web page, but I’ve just now read your piece again. It’s really, really helpful. So much so I’ve copied it into my journal so I don’t lose it.
    Would be interested in your opinion on lamentation in similar terms. Most (many) Anglican Churches make no provision for Lament as a response to life and what’s happening to us. In fact it seems often to me that lamenting is frowned on as a response to individual circumstance. We are expected always to be super cheerful and always grateful.
    I’ve had several times in my life when I needed to seriously lament, to wrestle with God over the circumstances of my life at a particular point in time (for instance on being diagnosed with a potentially terminal carcinoma). I know I’m not alone in needing permission to occasionally lament. But much of the Church doesn’t allow us to.
    Blessings, Peter.

    • Hi Jamie, thanks for your kind words. Leading congregations through doubt is something I think about heaps. I’m convinced that if we get better at this we might improve our chances with holding on to the thousands of young adults who are giving up their faith. Also, I think it improves the emotional health of a congregation, which is always a good thing.

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