in praise of doubt

Doubt.

It’s a word that makes a lot of Christian people squirm. We don’t really like talking about it in general, and particularly not when it pertains to us. We certainly don’t want our Christian friends and family to know we have doubts, because they’ll think we’re on the verge of apostasy. We just sit there, smile, and try not to think about those questions hanging around in the backs of our minds.

Here’s a confession: I am well-acquainted with doubt and I’m not ashamed about it. However, I think the way doubt is commonly handled in Christian circles is a travesty. Discussing doubt is uncouth in many settings, and questions regarding foundational doctrines like the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ are as good as a renunciation of faith.

But in my experience, doubt is not as bad as we’ve made it out to be. In fact, I think that doubt could be a very good and necessary thing. That might sound like a contradiction to what you believe about faith, but I want to make three statements about doubt and see if I can make my point.

So here we go.

Faith is not the absence of doubt.

I believe many of us have an unfortunate misunderstanding of what it means to have faith. To many people, having faith means believing something without any trace of doubt. If someone is experiencing doubt, it’s often viewed as a symptom of a faith that’s lacking vitality. Doubt is a fault in faith, some may think. To have a strong faith, you must completely rid yourself of all your doubts.

But not only is this untrue and nearly unattainable, but it isn’t what the Bible calls us to.

Faith that is bereft of all doubt is not faith, but certainty. I will agree that, theoretically, certainty sounds great. How fantastic would it be if we could believe everything the Bible teaches—even the really wild things like a man killing a thousand other guys with the jawbone of a donkey or dead men walking out of their graves—without the tiniest fleck of doubt?

Here’s the problem with this: the Bible does not call us to certainty, but to faith. Certainty, while it may be nice to have, is hardly commendable. It’s easy to be certain. There’s nothing particularly special about me proclaiming that a ball will fall to the ground if I drop it, because we’re all certain about the function of gravity.

Faith, on the other hand, is messy. Faith isn’t easy, because it’s belief with imperfect knowledge. There’s always a chance that what you’ve put your faith in may end up being false. That’s precisely what makes it faith. Faith requires the potential for doubt, or else it ceases to be faith at all.

When you’re living the life of faith, doubt is inevitable. Your faith isn’t sick if you experience doubt. In fact, if you don’t experience doubt at all, then there’s likely an issue with your faith. Doubt is a natural result of critical examination of the things you believe, and if you’re not critically examining what you believe, then you’re choosing willful ignorance about faith and the world around you.

As the well-known Christian intellectual William Lane Craig said, “Any Christian who is intellectually engaged and reflecting about his faith will inevitably face the problem of doubt.”

Doubt is an opportunity to grow.

When I was in Bible college, I loved the various theology classes that were offered, so I tried to take as many as I could. I didn’t know it then, but the professor who taught those courses was dealing with his own doubts during the time I was in his classes. Eventually, he announced that he no longer believed the tenets of Christianity and resigned his post at the school.

This professor was one of my favorites in college because his classes were so intellectually stimulating for me. Because of what he was experiencing with his faith, he asked questions and brought up many points in class that challenged what I believed in a way I had never experienced before. What began as a quest for knowledge and understanding became a downward spiral into debilitating doubt.

Few people know this, but I spent a very rough few months wrestling with these doubts, trying to figure out if I could still believe everything I’d grown up believing. I was teetering on the edge of agnosticism, terrified that I might end up like my professor and renounce my faith.

Despair was certainly a very possible outcome of my doubt. In fact, for awhile it seemed like it was the inevitable end result. But I found that it wasn’t the only possible outcome. On the opposite side of the doubt coin was the possibility for growth in my faith. Thankfully, this was the outcome I realized.

Through this difficult time, I learned that doubt is not just one of the inconvenient inevitabilities of life that we all must face at one time or another. Instead, doubt is an opportunity: it is either an opportunity to grow or it is an opportunity to despair.

For me, doubt was my opportunity to reexamine what I believed and correct some of my wayward theology. While this time of doubt was miserable, it ushered me into the rich, vibrant faith I now enjoy. By far the most growth I have experienced in my faith has come through the valleys of doubt.

Obviously, growth is not a given when it comes to doubt. There are those—like my former theology professor—who deal with doubt and succumb to despair. So what’s to account for the difference in outcomes?

In most cases, I think the key difference between someone who experiences growth as a result of doubt and someone who experiences despair is their response to doubt in the first place. Before doubt can be an opportunity for growth, it is an opportunity to trust in God when things don’t make sense.

The object of your faith is more important than the amount of it.

In Mark 9, we find the story of a man who asks Jesus to heal his son. This man is the one who proclaimed the famous biblical statement, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” He expresses imperfect faith that is riddled with doubt.

What is interesting—and encouraging—about this story is that Jesus does not dismiss this man for his doubt, telling him to come back when his faith is stronger. Instead Jesus sees the man’s imperfect faith and he honors it by healing the man’s son.

The man’s faith was small, but it wasn’t the amount of faith that caused his son to be healed. It was the person in whom he put his faith. From this we learn an important principle regarding faith: the object of your faith is more important than the amount of it. In other words, it’s more important who we put our faith in than how much faith we have.

The father’s knew his faith was imperfect, otherwise he wouldn’t have said, “Help my unbelief.” However, it’s okay to have an imperfect faith if the object of your imperfect faith is a perfect savior.  When you believe in Jesus, it’s okay to not have everything figured out. It’s okay to have doubts, because Jesus is willing to work with you in the midst of those doubts. He isn’t surprised or intimidated by your doubts, but he does want to help you overcome your doubts.

If you put your faith in a political party or a theoretical concept or a government or a constitution or a truck brand or anything else that isn’t Jesus, it will inevitably fail you because it is an imperfect object of faith. But if you put your faith in Jesus—even if it’s shaky and weak—he will never fail you because he is a perfect savior.

Jesus can handle our doubts and disillusionments and disappointments. And like he did with the father in the Mark 9 story, he will help us grow our faith if we seek him in the midst of our doubts. In Jeremiah 29:13, God proclaims that, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” So even in the worst of our doubts, we can take comfort in the fact that we will find God if we seek him with all our hearts.

Doubt is inevitable, but we shouldn’t be content to wallow in our doubts. Instead, we should be relying on God to help guide us through our questions and doubts. And, like we said earlier, we should use these questions and doubts as an opportunity to grow in our faith.

Seek Jesus as the object of your faith, because even when your faith is imperfect, he is perfect. Seek Jesus in prayer. Seek Jesus in Bible study. Seek Jesus in books that deal with difficult questions of faith. Seek Jesus in your conversations with other Christians who may know how to respond to your doubts.

When you’re experiencing doubt, don’t seek after some amorphous theological concept. Seek after Jesus. And as the Bible promises, you will find him when you seek him with all your heart.

A final word (actually, it’s 184 words).

If you’re currently dealing with doubt, there are two things I want to say to you:

One: You’re not alone.

Two: You’re not hopeless.

When you’re in the violent throes of doubt, it can be easy to believe you’re the only one asking the questions you’re asking, that no one could possibly understand what you’re going through or have answers you need.

While it may feel that way, it’s simply not true. The Bible is filled with people who experience various kinds of doubt, and post-biblical history even more so. There has never been a question or doubt that hasn’t been asked or experienced before.

You are not alone in your doubt.

When you’re being tossed about by the vicious winds and waves of doubt, it can also be difficult to see any hope for an end in sight. How could you possibly withstand all these challenges and come through on the other side with your faith intact?

But doubt is not a death sentence. Experiencing doubt doesn’t mean that your faith is dead or decrepit. Doubt is just a storm. Storms can be weathered, and inevitably they pass on.

There is hope for you in the midst of your doubt.

i’m the father of a demon-possessed kid

Perhaps the single verse with which I most resonate in all of Scripture is found in Mark 9:24: “Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’” Seriously, the dude who said these words two millennia ago stole the words from right out of my mouth. It seems like a nonsensical paradox, I know, but at the same time it makes so much sense to me.

For a long time, I’ve been a skeptical kind of guy, particularly when it comes to faith and epistemology. While this has sometimes led me to times of severe doubt and agnosticism, it has also guided me to a stronger foundation for what I believe.

Unfortunately, the fistfights with doubt seem to occur more frequently and violently than the times of existential peace. In fact, it seems like the more I have studied philosophy and theology, the more I have really had to grapple with the things I had so resolutely determined to be gospel truth.

However, I have come to find comfort in the words of Mark 9:24. I have held Christian beliefs (legitimately and independently) for several years now, so I already have the framework for belief in place. But there are still a great many nagging doubts in my brain that I find difficult to overcome. Thankfully, Mark 9:24 reminds me that I don’t have to be anywhere near full-fledged certitude in order to accede to the basic tenets of the Christian faith. I can offer whatever amount of faith I have and ask that God would, in turn, reveal truths to help me combat my unbelief.

I know that probably sounds like confirmation bias to some of you, and that might be accurate. But confirmation bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly if one’s presuppositions are correct to begin with (although I wouldn’t go so far as to make that claim for myself yet). Even if that were the case, though, I would hope that I approach the pursuit of understanding as objectively as possible (though I’m not sure how objective one could plausibly be in any case) and not as one seeking only to back up what I already believe.

The most frustrating thing, though, is that there will never be definitive proof one way or another regarding the truth of Christianity; I suppose that’s what makes it faith. But having faith does not result in the nonexistence of doubt, but rather faith requires doubt. The two are not mutually exclusive. Without doubt, faith would just be certainty, and I don’t think humans are smart enough to know anything with certainty.

Now, I don’t want you to be reading this and thinking, “Whoa, this dude is an apostate. He’s totally lost his faith.” That’s not true at all. In fact, I think my faith has gotten stronger and more genuine through this whole process. I don’t believe things simply because they were taught to me as a child anymore, but because I have wrestled with them, lost sleep over them, and, yes, even written poems about them. This has led me to modify or, at times, even reject some things I was taught as a child, while still grasping on to a fuller and more authentic version of my faith.

So why do I believe what I believe, you may be wondering (if, by chance, you aren’t actually wondering, feel free to head to http://www.netflix.com and watch Parks and Recreation or Criminal Minds, because either show would be far more exciting than this)? It’s actually quite simple. So simple, in fact, that it would make Christopher Hitchens roll his eyes and Richard Dawkins LOL. You may disagree with me too, and that’s okay. Anyway, enough apologizing:

It doesn’t take much research for me to see just how messed up our world is. As a result of my job in the mental health field, I’ve witnessed child abuse (physical, verbal, emotional, sexual), neglect, disabling addictions, suicide attempts, self-harm, relentless bullying and hazing, and malicious attacks toward others and myself. I’ve read deeply about mass murders committed on US soil—oftentimes perpetrated by teenagers. I watched as my neighborhood was destroyed by a devastating tornado, for no other reason than senseless random chance. I’ve read countless other stories of weather-related disasters that have led to tragic loss of life and property damage. And those are just my areas of personal study! There are innumerable injustices going on every second in our world today, from trafficking children as sex slaves to the slaughter of innocent people in the name of God. And I know that no amount of policy-making, military force, or even human decency is going to change the decadence of the world in general and humanity specifically.

I look at all of these things and think that there must be something more to it than this. Surely there is some sort of justice out there, some sort of healing, some sort of reconciliation, some sort of hope. I’m just not satisfied with the idea that this tired violence is all there is, that there’s no “putting the world to rights” as N.T. Wright would say.

To me, the only solution that makes any sense is Jesus and the gospel. And when I say gospel, I don’t mean the discriminatory, legalistic, nationalistic, war-mongering pseudo-gospel with which you may be familiar. I mean the real gospel, the one that sets the captive free, brings life to the dead, provides healing for the sick, promotes peace for the war-torn, seeks justice for the oppressed, and promises absolution for the convict. I mean the gospel that turns everything we think we know on its head by turning the other cheek and going the extra mile. I mean the gospel that will one day restore everything to the way it was originally intended to be. I mean the gospel that reminds us that, though the night may be blacker than the blackest black we could ever imagine, there’s a new day coming and the sun will shine out so bright that our retinas would melt away were it not for the grace of God providing some sort of heavenly eye protection. To me, that is a gospel worth believing, and without it, I couldn’t even imagine life being all that worth it.

That’s why I believe. That’s why, even though I know there are gaps and logical flaws in my reasoning, I have no problem crying out, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”