Uncertainty makes me anxious. I like having a solid plan with sure knowledge. It’s something of a human inclination to want to have complete loops or entire stories with no plot holes. That’s why we tend to think of doubt as a negative thing. If we have doubts before our wedding day, isn’t that bad? Not necessarily – we think it will be a spur to assume you are doing the wrong thing, but it could be the momentary pause we need to re-remember why we’re doing it and to be sure and confident.
It is the same with our faith. We assume doubt is a negative thing. A survey in 2017 in the US found that only 35% of self-identifying Christians never experience doubt, 40% did and worked through it and 25% still had doubts. Look around your church – 1 in 4 people could be experiencing doubt. Maybe you are one of them.
Of those who experienced doubt, 45% of them stopped going to church and 29% of them stopped reading their Bible and praying. A quarter of them stopped talking to friends and family about spiritual matters. That is heartbreaking.
But we are fighting against an internal instinct and a worldly push.
Internally there is a little voice that says, “Did God really say…..?” just as the serpent said to Adam and Eve in Eden. We are also fighting ourselves when our inclination to sin is trying to master us – we want what we want and so if we can’t bend God’s will to our wishes, we will doubt the truth to suit our inclinations. Even the great C. S. Lewis wrestled with doubt throughout his life “Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.” Our changing moods – what we have no trouble with believing one day, can be a nagging source of doubt to us another.
The world also pushes us to doubt and deconstruct. Nearly 60% of people raised in Christian churches deconstruct their faith after high school in the US.* Deconstruction is cool. It means we’ve evolved: “Being post-something is powerful and intoxicating. We’ve been there. We’ve left. We’ve transcended.”**
So how should we approach doubt? Do we squash it down? Ignore it? Tell our kids not to? And then if we do, or they do, do we just let it all go?
No. Doubt is not evidence of untruth. It is evidence of being human. And as humans, we need guidance, because doubt is a trigger to go deeper. It can confirm the confidence you had, or even lead to a stronger faith after re-affirming the truth for yourself again.
First of all, we have to recognise that there are different types of doubt and sometimes we mash them all together:
- Questioning in the moment what doesn’t make sense to us
- Small doubts where our cynical side takes over (for example, did Mary really get pregnant by the Holy Spirit or did she just say that to avoid a scandal?)
- Big doubts that could lead to an unravelling of our faith.
Not all these doubts are equal. Some we will Google. Some we can talk to a minister or Bible study leader about. Some need time and prayer and discussions with a trusted Christian friend. We shouldn’t treat them as all the same. And we shouldn’t ignore them. Because the other thing is that doubt tends to fester like an open sore if not treated. We should face them. We should ask the questions. We should find out.
A great encouragement in the Bible is that doubt is totally cool and normal.
In Luke 24:13-14, we see two guys walking to Emmaus from Jerusalem after Jesus’ crucifixion. “Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened.” I do not think for a second that they are having a deep theological discourse about the significance of Jesus’ death. No. Jesus has risen but not to many – he appears to these men shortly after this – so they will have been discussing what Jesus said and how it could be true. They would have been discussing their doubts.
Jesus says to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (v25). We might understand this as Jesus calling them idiots or morons but “foolish” here means without knowledge. It’s about not understanding. So Jesus doesn’t call them names and leave them to it, he teaches them: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (v27)
There’s Thomas, the famous doubter who said “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25). When Jesus appears, he speaks specifically to Thomas “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” (v27). He knew Thomas doubted and showed him.
In both cases, the doubters stay around long enough to hear or see what Jesus has to tell them. In both cases, Jesus knows they are doubting or acting without knowledge and in his grace, teaches them.
In response, Thomas proclaims Jesus as his Lord and his God. The two men on the road to Emmaus returned at once to Jerusalem to corroborate what the disciples were saying. Their doubts drive them deeper.
So here’s a summary of things to think about so that when you doubt, you can doubt well:
- Remember that all doubts are not the same – recognise what kind of doubt it is that you are having
- Don’t ignore it. Pick it up in order to do something with it
- Know that doubting biblically is completely normal
- Remember that we are human so some of our doubts come from a wrestling of our intellect and our emotions
- Remember that doubt was also at the core of temptation in Eden. Know yourself and where you are coming from. For example, do you want to doubt because you want to do something that would be sinful, do you doubt because the world is telling you to or are you doubting from a sincere wish to understand?
- Have the courage to question but the humility to be wrong
- Don’t stop going to church, reading your Bible or praying. Take your doubts to God. Ask him to help you understand.
- Don’t allow the world to persuade you that deconstructing your faith is an “evolution” or post-Christian intellectual progress. Your doubts are normal, but that doesn’t mean that the gospel isn’t true. It means you need to ask questions.
- Allow your Christian friends and family help you too. Doubt is a journey so allow it to take the time it needs instead of just ignoring it, or throwing away your whole faith.
Doubt can lead people to deconstructing their faith and just walking away. Or faith can be a vehicle to understanding deeper what you believe and why you believe it. The truth of the gospel doesn’t hinge on whether we believe it or not. The gospel is its own objective truth. We can allow doubt to erode our faith, or we can use it to genuinely seek the truth and reconstruct our faith on stronger foundations.
That doesn’t mean we can (or should) expect answers to every single question. Some things do require our faith. But that still doesn’t mean we check our logic at the door. There are issues of truth where, if we have those answers and believe, we can be confident that the other things are true too. For example, my cynical modern brain really has a hard time believing the virgin birth. I just do. But I have read extensively around the resurrection*** and I’ve written about the main reason I believe. Those issues give me the confidence to accept that while my brain can’t quite compute the virgin birth, I can still accept it as true because I am convinced by the evidence we have for other equally miraculous events.
If you are doubting – or walking with someone who is doubting – please don’t be afraid of it. Feel confident that Jesus acknowledges your doubt and your fear and is still there. God is patient and gracious and his love is infinite. He has the answers for you.
* A. J. Swoboda, After Doubt. How to Question your Faith Without Losing It, p7
** Ibid, p9
*** There are some great books on the resurrection, Lee Strobel’s The Case for Easter is short, concise and really readable, or you could start with a summary of the key evidence here.