To the Poor in the Spirit,
I may not know you,
but I know how it starts.
A visit to another church, a sentence in a book, a comment on a podcast, an encounter with a classmate, a shared article on Facebook, a changing political stance, a travel experience – whatever it was, something jarred the day-to-day rhythms of your faith and rattled your worldview in ways you weren’t quite expecting.
Writing about doubt is extremely difficult because all crises of faith are deeply personal and affecting to the person experiencing them.
There was a period in my life when I really wanted to be the “Christian guy with all the answers,” but the deeper I dug into church history and the arguments against Christianity the more shaken I became.
But along that journey, I developed a special kinship with other people who felt caught between two worlds that appeared to be at odds with one another.
Some of these people are now atheists,
others are even more devoted Christ followers,
and some are still caught in a spiritual limbo.
This letter is a summation of my conversations and observations about doubt, why it happens, how we get it wrong, and what we can do to move forward.
But be forewarned: This article is not for everyone and it will prove incredibly challenging for most. Its schizophrenic heart can be distilled to two incredibly thought-provoking quotes.
The first is by Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist famous for his anti-religious rhetoric:
“We are all atheist about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”
And the second is by Oswald Chambers, a Scottish theologian famous for his devotional writings during World War I:
“Always make a practice to stir your own mind thoroughly to think through what you have easily believed. Your position is not really yours until you make it yours through suffering and study.”
If you find yourself frequently caught between these two realms,
then this is for you.
How You Know What You Know
If you’re adrift in your faith, I can make a few guesses about your religious upbringing.
You were probably led to believe (intentionally or not) that:
- Your faith is as strong as it is certain.
- Doubt is a symptom of a shallow faith, spiritual attack, or “backsliding.”
- Your religious denomination had it the “most correct” when it came to the Bible, how God works in the world, and what He expects of his followers.
- Your prayers are only as effective as the strength of your faith.
- Church leaders are more or less infallible, above reproach, and impervious to uncertainty.
In some denominations and faith traditions, the very act of questioning is treated as the first timid steps toward a complete rejection of Church doctrine.
In my experience, religious communities such as this are breeding grounds for doubt, disenchantment, and disillusionment.
In Faith in the Shadows, pastors Austin Fischer writes,
“Doubt makes people abandon faith, but people don’t abandon faith because they have doubts. People abandon faith because they think they’re not allowed to have doubts. People abandon faith because, intentionally or unintentionally, they’ve been forced into an impossible, unbiblical, binary choice: you can have Jesus or you can have doubts, but you cannot have both.”
As a serial skeptic, Fischer’s words strike a familiar chord.
And I’m probably not alone.
Most of us — regardless of our religious upbringing (or lack thereof) — grew up comparing the superiority of our worldview with the shortcomings of all others.
(The flip side of this, of course, is that everyone else who believes differently than you is doing the same thing.)
I was born, raised, churched and schooled in an environment where belief in God – specifically, the God revealed in the Christian Bible – wasn’t only deemed logical, it was considered the only sane conclusion in a world driven mad by terrorism, secularism, and materialism.
However, it wasn’t enough to keep the doubt at bay.
If anyone who dies without Jesus goes to Hell, does that mean the six million Jews who were starved, tortured, and executed during the Holocaust are in Hell? That their eternal destination is literally the same place as their Nazi captors?
Why are we so quick to dismiss other cultures’ religious beliefs and stories as “mythologies,” and yet we readily accept our own’s religion’s fantastic tales and miraculous claims as “objective truth”?
When Jesus rose from the dead, did everyone alive at that time – including Indians in the Americas and Huns in Outer Mongolia – suddenly become personally responsible for that information?
In other words, I was a Sunday School teacher’s worst nightmare.
But, for the most part, I kept my questions to myself.
I was observant enough to notice the people who were rewarded and celebrated by my faith community were not the ones who asked hard questions or challenged authority.
I was an ambitious teenager, and I wanted people to think highly of me and respect me.
And, perhaps more than that, I wanted to believe my beliefs.
I suppressed my doubts,
And that’s pretty easy to do when everyone around you thinks and believes the same thing as you do.
In The Benefit of the Doubt, theologian Gregory Boyd writes,
“It’s much easier to remain certain of your beliefs when you are not in personal contact with people who believe differently. But when you encounter people with different beliefs, and when those people’s sincerity and devotion possibly put yours to shame, things become quite a bit more difficult.”
For the better part of world history, most people didn’t have to worry about having their faith tested by an alternative truth claim. A lot of people simply lived and died within the only religious system they were exposed to.
But technology, globalization, social media, and international travel provide a dizzying array of opportunities to encounter people of different cultures and religious backgrounds – the world is literally at our doorstep.
Living in a post-modern and pluralistic society creates all sorts of unique challenges and opportunities for doubt to settle into our bones.
Because – like most of us – when I left my bubble, I was shocked to discover that my “strong foundations” were shaped more by social validation and cultural reinforcement than they were by hard conviction or unbiased assessment.
And that can be a pretty scary place to be.
and Let God
There’s a lot of really good reasons not to believe in God.
I know that’s an uncomfortable statement.
But it’s a necessary one.
For some people, all it takes is a glorious sunset or stunning mountain vista to proclaim, “How can you not believe in a loving God if this is His canvas?”
And some people can look at nature and arrive at the exact opposite conclusion.
Take December 26, 2004. On that day, 227,898 people were killed along the shorelines of the Indian Ocean after an underwater earthquake triggered a series of devastating tsunamis.
That’s a quarter million men, women, and children who – according to my Orthodox faith tradition and global religious demographics – are experiencing an “eternal separation” from God largely on account of being born at the wrong place at the wrong time.
All because a tectonic plate underneath the Indian Ocean shifted a few meters the day after Christmas. How’s that for a canvas?
Are you starting to feel a little tension between your head and heart?
In the Book of Job, the titular character cries out to God:
I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit,
I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.
I cry out to you God, but you do not answer;
I stand up, but you merely look at me.
You turn on me ruthlessly.
Faith is pretty easy when it’s limited to personal quiet times or low-stakes theological discussions in coffee shops. It’s when our sanitized faith starts bumping up against the real world that we start seeing sparks.
If we believe God is Truth,
then the pursuit of truth is the pursuit of God.
But if the first step in our faith journey isn’t to seriously consider and acknowledge the fact that our religious beliefs may be incorrect then we cannot – with any credibility – claim that we are honestly seeking the goodness found in Truth.
Let that sink in for a moment.
In A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren writes,
“We must never underestimate our power to be wrong when talking about God, when thinking about God, when imagining God, whether in prose or in poetry. A generous orthodoxy, in contrast to the tense, narrow, or controlling orthodoxies of so much of Christian history, doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is humble. It doesn’t claim too much. It admits it walks with a limp.”
There’s a certain attractiveness to this perspective to our faith,
a posture of humility that simultaneously makes us more approachable and generous.
I don’t know about you, but the more certain I become on an issue, the more arrogant I tend to become.
And the more arrogant I become, the less likely I am to listen to another point of view or empathize with someone else’s personal experience.
Most people’s doubts and disbelief are rooted in legitimate concerns, observations, and questions. More often than not, it’s evidence they’re actually thinking through the claims of Christianity and comparing them with their own experiences.
It’s foolish to dismiss someone out of hand simply because they’re forcing us to think critically about our own beliefs.
A lot of interesting things happen when a fire rips through a forest.
Amid all the smoke and fury, the occasional wildfire can do a lot of good for an ecosystem.
If a forest goes too long without a good burn, the foliage begins to choke out sunlight necessary to support further growth along the forest floor. Dead trees and plant matter contain important nutrients that can benefit the soil after they’re reduced to ash.
Fires burn out dangerous invasive species and clear up weeds. In fact, some trees have fire-activated seeds that can only germinate after a wildfire.
Our faith can work the same way. Every now and then, it’s okay – perhaps even beneficial – for a fire to burn through all of our accumulated ideas and opinions about God that may not be doing us much good anymore.
Because sometimes the forest of our faith can become so thick and tangled there’s no way anyone would want to follow us into that mess.
These ‘wildfire seasons’ can be extremely frightening and disorienting (and can even leave us wondering if anything will be left standing when it’s all over), but they open up space in our souls for new growth, healing, and insight.
It’s only after we make ‘doubt’ a dirty word that it becomes dangerous.
In The Sin of Certainty, Peter Enns says,
“But doubt is not the enemy of faith, a solely destructive force that rips us away from God, a dark cloud that blocks the bright warm sun of faith. Doubt is only the enemy of faith when we equate faith with certainty in our thinking.”
Wildfire seasons are a natural part of our ecosystem,
and these cycles have been woven into the fabric of our faith.
And we know this to be true of all other aspects of life – a divine rhythm that underscores the moments that we find both beautiful and terrifying.
Franciscan friar and author Richard Rohr says,
“You normally have to let go of the old and go through a stage of unknowing or confusion before you can move to another level of awareness or new capacity. This opening up and letting go is largely what we mean by faith, and explains why doubt and faith are correlative terms. The movement through unknowing is necessary in all encounters, relationships, or intellectual breakthroughs, not just with the Divine.”
The ancient perspective of faith was as a dynamic interplay of knowing and unknowing.
This is what it meant when the man with sick daughter asked Jesus,
“I believe, but help me with my unbelief!”
A faith divorced from fear-driven and anxiety-inducing fundamentalism isn’t threatened by metaphor, nuance, mystery, allegory, science, and theological ambiguity.
Wonder and wandering tend to go hand-in-hand.
Because certainty abolishes wonder.
And it chokes out grace,
There’s a crazy verse buried at the tail end of the book of Matthew, one of the four Jesus biographies found in the New Testament.
To set the scene, Jesus has just returned from the grave three days after being executed by the Roman Empire. And on a mountaintop, Jesus meets with the remaining eleven disciples.
And the text reads: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”
Those three words are deceptively simple, and yet divinely jarring.
In the original Greek, the word used for ‘they’ is used inclusively.
In other words, it’s not that “some worshipped” and “some doubted.”
A better reading would be, “Even though some doubted, they all worshipped.”
And that’s a really beautiful statement.
There are days when I’m not really sure if I believe in God or not (or, if there is a God, if He really cares about what’s going on here on Earth). But there are other days when I absolutely fascinated by the person of Jesus and desire nothing more than his claims of divinity to be true.
And there are church services where I’m halfway convinced all the singing, praying, and preaching is just a shared fantasy created to make sense of our fear of death and what (if anything) comes after. And sometimes I don’t know what I do without our little church community.
I believe in evolution and think some Bible stories are more profound when they’re understood figuratively rather than literally, and there are bits and pieces of doctrine I used to hold tight (often with a clenched fist) that I have since released from my grasp and walked away from.
Doubt paralyzes a certainty-seeking faith.
It assumes we can’t be useful or helpful unless we have all the details of our beliefs ironed out.
So, in a weird way, the fear of losing faith can become a pretty effective deterrent against doing anything with your faith.
An embodied faith, a faith that exists outside the confines of the mind, finds its fullest and most beautiful expression when it’s unshackled from fear and propelled into loving action.
Thomas Aquinas, an Italian theologian who lived during the 13th Century, said,
“Fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take over us, it drives compassion right out of our hearts.”
At some point, we have to ask ourselves: Is our faith really our own? Or, is it just a coping mechanism for an anxious and fearful world?
It’s vital to acknowledge your doubts and bring them to the light of day.
And some questions can be answered, while some may haunt the background of your faith for the rest of your life.
But doubt also has a tendency to open up avenues and expressions of faith that were previously closed off to dogma and fundamentalism.
In Plan B, Anne Lamott writes,
“The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. Faith also means reaching deeply within, for the sense one was born with, the sense, for example, to go for a walk.“
Doubt is what happens when we’re pushed outside of our theological, intellectual, and experiential comfort zones.
And that’s exactly where faith is supposed to take us.
Addendum: Doubt Your Doubts
I know some people who wear their doubts like a badge of honor.
Certainty breeds arrogance,
but it can be just as easy to fall into the trap of assuming you’re more “enlightened” or “authentic” for being skeptical of religious authority and tradition.
Truth be told, you could just be an arrogant jerk.
Harsh, I know,
but I’m speaking from personal experience.
Yes, there are probably problems and inconsistencies in your faith system (and this includes all religions, political ideologies, and secular philosophies),
but the problem could also be you.
It could just be that you have an issue with submitting yourself to any sort of idea or institution that expands your level of personal responsibility beyond yourself.
doubt your doubts,
and reflect on your motivations.
If the path you’re on making isn’t you a more compassionate, empathetic, and graceful person, then you’ve probably traded one form of fundamentalism for another.
It’s not your job to force people into a season of doubt so they can “get on your level.”
That’s not the Jesus Way, and it will not endear you to your faith community.
Go in peace,
and go in kindness.