If you’ve been a follower of Jesus for more than about 45 minutes, you know that a life of faith is, more often than we’d like to admit, accompanied by faith’s flip side, doubt. Sooner or later, something happens where you are no longer sure about something that you used to be so certain about. The day will come—it always does—when you have to admit to yourself, “I don’t know what I believe anymore.”
Doubt travels along many different paths and eventually finds its way to our door. And to be sure, when doubt comes knocking, it can be uncomfortable, unnerving, discouraging, and depressing. We often don’t know what to do about it, either. You don’t feel comfortable coming clean about it, and especially not to people who have come to expect you to be “solid” in the faith.
And talking to your pastor or spiritual mentor is about the last thing you want to do, in part because you feel like you might be judged or shamed. The one place where we can and should be free to talk about this is the place we are least likely to.
But doubt is not a sign of “weak faith”. It is not evidence that you are broken and need to be fixed, a sign of disobedience to God, or of some unnamed, hidden sin in your life.
In my experience I have come to see three interconnected truths about the presence of doubt in the life of faith: Doubt is to be expected as a normal part of faith; Doubt is experienced by biblical writers, and; Doubt actually does something positive for our faith that nothing else can.
Doubt happens. You don’t have to go looking for doubt. Doubt will find you, especially if you are living a life of being present to your own experiences.
Think of things that have introduced some doubt into your faith. It may have been a major sadness or struggle. But it may also have been some normal moment in the normal affairs of your life.
You may have read a book or seen a movie that presents a way of looking at the world that you find attractive, even life giving, but that you can’t connect to the kind of world defined by your faith—and so you begin to wonder.
Or maybe you met a new friend who is so wonderful, but who doesn’t think about the world and God remotely like you do—and so you begin to consider that perhaps what you believe in isn’t so special.
Just living and breathing presents ample opportunities to work through doubt.
Doubt is biblical. One of the most helpful things I have ever come across in my life of faith is seeing how biblical characters struggle with their faith as we do.
About half of the 150 psalms in the Book of Psalms have some lament, some cause of sadness due to God’s absence, some struggle about the meaning of it all and whether trusting God is really worth the bother. Some of my favorite psalms that knock you over for their honesty are Psalms 44, 73, 88, and 89. And there are others.
We can throw in here other books like Job, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations. Built right into the Bible is the experience of doubt and the honest courage of the biblical writers to tell it like it is. I find it comforting in my own struggles with faith to know that any loud cry or depressive period I might endure finds an echo among those who lived as much as 3000 years ago.
Doubt is beneficial. The experience of doubt is the experience of God’s absence. Yet, as John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila (among many others) have observed, what is “absent” is not so much God as our understanding of God.
We are all subject to mistaking our understanding of God with the real thing. That is part of the human experience. God mercifully leaves us there for a time, to understand God as we are able to, but in ways that also limit God to our perceptions. When we feel that we are leaving God behind, we may in fact simply be leaving behind the God we have come to understand, the God bound by our own small imaginations.
Doubt does something for our faith that nothing else can do. It turns off the lights, presses reset, scrubs off the caked on mud (pick your favorite metaphor), which drives us toward another level of faith, not so much a higher level of understanding (although there may be that), but a deeper level of awareness of God’s presence that cannot be captured by our limited thinking.
Being in a period of doubt is not a sign that you are broken and need to be fixed. It is, in fact, a sign that you are on a true journey of faith.
If you want to dig deeper into the issues Pete raised in this post, then make sure you check out our interview with him (one of our favourites, and the most downloaded of 2016).
You’ll also want to subscribe to his blog. And I highly recommend his book The Sin of Certainty . It’s a must read for anyone going through a faith shift, and wrestling with doubts and uncertainties. It’s full of wisdom, insight, humour and honesty. One of my favourite books of 2016. In fact, it’s worth checking out his other books, they’re all well worth reading, especially The Bible Tells Me So. – Tim