What the church doesn’t tell you about doubt

What the church doesn’t tell you about doubt June 11, 2018
Photo via Pixabay.

I write a lot about my beliefs, to the point where I sometimes cringe at how assured and confident I seem when I look in old posts. But the truth is that the writer of these words doesn’t always feel as solid as he sounds, and mountain-moving faith is quickly replaced by that which aspires to being mustard seed-sized. I’ve called myself an “Occasional Atheist” for how quickly my faith can turn to doubt and unbelief.

Doubt has been a part of my Christian walk since I crept to my parents’ room one night at 7 years old to tell them I was afraid I hadn’t prayed enough when I got saved. In some form or another, it’s been persistent, sometimes just a faint whisper and other times a raging storm. I don’t talk much about it because, honestly, the church doesn’t talk much about it. Some believers think that to doubt is to sin, that true Christians may have a moment of wavering but prolonged doubt and questions are antithetical to the faith.

But I do doubt, and I know that I’m not the only one. What I’ve learned through my struggles is that it’s something we all need to address and be open with. Here’s what I wish people had told me about doubt growing up.

 

  1. It’s okay. It’s tempting to deny the questions that arise to the point where we won’t acknowledge asking them, but it’s understandable. Our biblical heroes are people who have shown unwavering faith. We champion Abraham for leaving his home when God called him and David for grabbing his slingshot when Goliath challenged. Thomas, on the other hand, is a cautionary tale. But read the Thomas account again; Jesus doesn’t rebuke his disciple’s doubt; he meets him it. We forget that Abraham had questions not only about God’s ability to provide him a son but to keep him and his wife safe in strange lands. David often had strong faith, but he also wrote Psalms chronicling dark nights of the soul. Even Jesus in the garden acknowledged questions about God’s plans. Doubt happens even to spiritual giants and questions slip through our best theological arguments. It happens to all of us. It’s not a sin. It’s okay. And it’s better to acknowledge it and walk through it than think you’re stronger than it.
  2. It’s sneaky. Doubt is like a spiritual version of depression or anxiety. It comes without warning; it’s not always brought on by difficult life experiences. You can be listening to a sermon, perfectly content on Sunday morning, and then think “Do I really believe in all this?” You can be playing with your kids at the park and the thought will creep in, “Is this all there is?” Yes, struggles and trials can often prompt spiritual wrestling. But in my experience, doubt doesn’t so much bust down the door; it sneaks in through the window on sunny days and whispers its questions in my ear. There isn’t a way to predict it and, really, there isn’t a way to avoid it. It comes in like a slight shift in the wind, and sometimes you’re the only one who feels the climate change.
  3. It can’t always be explained away.  When I went through my first serious battle with doubt, I fought back with apologetics. Evidence That Demands a Verdict, The Case for Christ, Mere Christianity. And I don’t want to devalue some of the good apologetic material out there. Part of what often draws me back to my faith is that I believe it’s rational. Scripture never urges us to shut off our brain but rather to engage it. But sometimes the arguments won’t work. In fact, sometimes our attempt to find an intellectual solution just makes it worse. I read apologetics books voraciously until I began asking “Why do only people who believe this tend to write these books”? You’ll always find one nagging question to your doctrinal solutions (and if you’re Calvinist, you’ll begin to wonder if you’re just not chosen, which is a whole bag of worms you don’t want to open). The truth is, no theological argument is airtight and there’s never going to be something that can’t be questioned. We wouldn’t need faith if there was. We are finite beings trying to understand the infinite, and we’ll never have it completely locked down. And sometimes, doubt is more like a feeling than a question. You might have evidence in front of you, but something is just not swaying you in the moment. Faith doesn’t mean this won’t happen; faith means believing it’s temporary.
  4. It’s sticky. I feel like Christian culture sometimes gives everyone a one-time doubting pass. We figure there will come a point where we have some questions or niggling feelings about our beliefs. This is our Crisis of Faith ™ that God helps us overcome and then the rest of our life is spiritually coasting. I wonder if that’s why in our initial battle with doubt we often load up on apologetics and arguments; we think this is our big fight and we’re ready to get it over with. But it’s been 20 years since my college days, and I still fight doubt. I still have evenings where I lie in bed wondering if I’ve chosen the right faith or if there’s anything to have faith in. I alternate between being a confident, Bible-believing Christian and a doubtful, questioning unbeliever. As I write this, I’m in a period of questioning. Tomorrow morning, I could likely be back in a place of strong belief. I’ve learned to look at my spiritual life not as a story with one big climax but as a river where sometimes the water is placid and other times there are rocks, rapids and undertows. I doubt it will stop throughout my life. It’s pushing through that’s important.
  5. It’s essential. It’s easy to look at these points and feel overwhelmed, like we’ll never avoid a life of doubt — and we won’t. But that’s not because doubt wins; it’s because we grow not in spite of our doubts but because of them. I’ve heard it said that doubt is the soil in which faith grows. It’s through wrestling with questions and disbelief that we rip down our own pride and intellectual idols, and come to the end of ourselves and a greater understanding of God. Job didn’t believe he had truly known God until after chapters of questioning. The Psalmists go through doubts and questions before they come to a place of greater belief. Without doubt, we grow stagnant and our faith grows overly intellectual, our understanding of God limited only to what we can explain. Doubt helps us see the limitations of the crutches we’ve used to understand God and asks us to walk forward in confidence. It’s difficult, terrifying and sometimes lonely, but it brings us to a better place.

 

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  • Doubting Thomas

    When I went through my first serious battle with doubt, I fought back with apologetics. Evidence That Demands a Verdict, The Case for Christ, Mere Christianity.

    This is because you want your beliefs to be true, so you look to reinforce them instead of trying to prove them wrong. Why didn’t you read an anti-Christian book instead? Or at least balanced the apologetics with an atheist writer?

  • Fair enough.

    But when I went through my first struggle with doubt, I was 18 years old and had been ensconced in fundamentalist culture for my childhood. It was hard enough to admit I was asking questions at that time, let alone venture too far away to read things by people who were coming at things from a totally different angle. I needed to ease into other perspectives. Twenty years later, I’ve read many writings by atheists and have friends who are nonbelievers. But at that time, I wasn’t ready for it.

  • Doubting Thomas

    It probably wasn’t the fundamentalist culture (although that probably didn’t help), it’s simply human nature. People are naturally illogical and unreasonable. People don’t like having their beliefs challenged and so they do things to minimize doubts (like reading apologetics to quiet religious doubts ;p). When confronted with questions, they look for answers that reinforce their pre-existing beliefs (confirmation bias). When presented with evidence against their beliefs, they come up with improbable rationalizations in order to maintain their beliefs (motivated reasoning).

    It’s hard to change your own mind. It can be physically painful to subject yourself to evidence against your opinion. Learning critical thinking helps. Learning to spot fallacious arguments helps (I don’t think I’ve seen an apologetic argument that wasn’t blatantly fallacious). But doing the actual work is tough.

  • swbarnes2

    Let me guess…you were totally confident that you would be willing to sacrifice anything for Jesus…but reading books by non-Christians was just too hard? That’s the faith Christianity teaches?

  • swbarnes2

    Okay…does the evidence show that God helps people who consistently and sincerely pray for guidance do this better than others?

  • Doubting Thomas

    Not that I’m aware.

  • swbarnes2

    Why not? Why doesn’t literally praying for guidance work?

  • Doubting Thomas

    I didn’t say it didn’t work.

    But if it did work, I’m guessing it is just due to the introspection rather than anything supernatural. If it doesn’t work, I’m guessing it’s because prayer is just a person talking quietly to themselves.

  • Ame

    Have you read the works of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They list gluttony, avarice, accedie, anger, despair, lust, vainglory, and pride as problems of the spiritual life….but not doubt.

  • Robert Conner

    Doubt is the rational, normal reaction when the stories are doubtful. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/95dd8d1127e8311d24e461da02b941d75e3d08c195d39d680678fc8016a546ad.jpg

  • MrSahansdal

    Doubting is normal when the subject is bogus. There was no human Jesus. That’s because the whole Gospel story was pinched from the Gnostics. It was originally a mastership installation event (Apocalypses of James) turned upside down in the canon as a ‘Betrayal’- a phony story designed to separate converts from their money and to gain power over them. It obviously worked very well, at least until Nag Hammadi.

  • Mr. James Parson

    Yup, it is OK do doubt.

    I doubted until I got all the way out.

  • carolyntclark

    Doubt is your evolved logical brain urging caution. Whether the red flag of doubt is waving while listening to a street vendor selling a Rolex for $20 bucks or religion selling you
    a heavenly hereafter, follow your natural intelligence mode and run the other way.

  • Theodore A. Jones

    “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13

  • Martha Arenas

    These days, I no longer struggle much with doubt. I have thankfully been able to cultivate what Gallup, Inc. told me was my second highest strength of connectedness and, once you see beyond the horizon, it becomes hard to doubt the rationality and need for faith or the existence of a grand design complete with challenges, evil and even horror. However, when I was younger, doubt was persistent and excruciating at times. I found refuge in “Come, Be My Light,” by St. Teresa of Calcutta. When you read it, on the surface, her emptiness and lack of consolation appear shocking when in actuality, her faith would always grow deeper, even as the darkness seemed to grow. We tend to equate the presence of God with deep feelings of certainty and joy. In reality, we live in a world which is separated from the divine and gifted (or cursed as some see it) with free will. That alone will bring doubt to the heart and mind.

    Nonetheless, many of the greatest figures experience this doubt while growing their faith. After all, didn’t Jesus experience doubt during his own passion and death, hanging on the cross. In his human nature, he experienced an abandonment by God: “Why have you forsaken me? and before then jesus prayed: “Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will.”

    I;m not saying that doubt will never assault me but, like you, I now understand it is part of the process of being in the right path.

    With that said, thank you for this post! I hope it helps others alos on the journey.

  • What a load of rot.

  • I have no doubts whatsoever about gods. I know there aren’t any, and I know this because I understand the nature of existence, quantum field theory. Gods as all of mankind has ever described them are not present within existence.
    Isn’t it a good thing too. Life would be hell on Earth if there were any.

  • Martha Arenas

    Lol! To you, maybe. Don’t worry, I’ll keep you in my prayers Veronica.

  • A thorough understanding of physics is the best medicine to remove all doubts about the existence of gods.

  • If it makes YOU feel good. You self righteous jerk.

  • Alexandra

    He just said that he was 18 at the time.
    Many who are much older than that are not willing to read an opposite point of view about anything, let alone religion.

  • Shawn Willis

    Doubt can, and regularly does, save people’s lives. There is nothing negative about doubt, it is in arriving at false conclusions where the danger lies. Reasoning adult minds should always question whether the methods they use to arrive at their conclusions are effective and applied consistently to all subjects.

  • Doubting Thomas

    While surveys of physicists indicate that’s true, I’d say an understanding of critical thinking would be even more effective.

  • No argument about the need and positive affects of critical thinking, the evidence regarding existence, its behavior and properties, indicates that that gods are not present within existence and can only be produced with physics, namely quantum field theory, since it defines existence.

  • I like this statement. It has all the right words.

  • “People are naturally illogical and unreasonable.” Maybe stupid people, but not rational intelligent people that aren’t lazy and take the time to educate themselves well enough.

  • Doubting Thomas

    The fact that people have to “take the time to educate themselves well enough” in order not to be illogical and unreasonable seems to mean that people are naturally illogical and unreasonable. If people weren’t naturally that way then they wouldn’t need the education to make it happen.

  • Doubting Thomas

    I think people had plenty of good evidence regarding the man-made nature of gods long before quantum field theory.

  • Philosophical evidence, not hard scientific evidence. And strangely enough most people still ignore all of it.

  • Martha Arenas

    Good morning Veronica. When praying for you I expect all the benefit to go to you and nothing in return. If my praying for you was offensive in any capacity, I apologize. I did not intend to be deliberately rude. BTW, addressing people in an aggressive manner, makes it difficult for others to see your perspective. Being adjectively (or otherwise) rude or disrespectful are, in fact, jerk-like behaviors. Something you might want to considerer in the future. As for me… how does the childhood saying go again? Sticks and stones… So no worries, I’m not offended at all.

    All aside, I honestly hope you have a beautiful day, my friend 🙂

  • Martha Arenas

    I respectfully disagree with you Veronica. The traditional Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory still makes the most sense amongst physicists. The Copenhagen interpretation provides a strong argument against physicalism (materialism) and determinism thus, giving the conscious observer special ontological standing. If this is true then, an observer must have always existed, human or otherwise for reality to be, well, real.

  • You are still a god believer and that necessarily makes you a jerk. There really aren’t any gods, there are only people and gods get in their way by fooling gullible people like yourself into wasting time and resources toward these fictitious gods when the time and resources could otherwise be fully directed to actual people. That IS being a jerk and you obviously fill that bill. Now go read a good Science book.

  • Oh, why would or should I care if you are offended. You and your beliefs need to be ridiculed vigorously and frequently. Religious dogma is harmful to all people and society in general and you promote it.

  • Martha Arenas

    Perhaps you don’t need to, if your intention is not to persuade others towards your point of view and you’re rather attempting to allienate them.

  • Shawn Willis

    What particular aspect of your faith did you have doubts about, before being assuaged by St Theresa?

  • Martha Arenas

    The problem of evil and seemingly strict duality.

  • Like you are going to suddenly use reason, logic and Science to discover what is actually true. We know who and what you are from your comments. Those that can use reason, logic and Science will eventually discover what is actually true with or without me. You, I doubt it. To finish on the note of doubt.

  • Martha Arenas

    Veronica, sweetie, you dissapoint me. Such a reductionis judgement of a human, especially coming from someone who has been belittled, labeled, and underestimated. Still love you!

  • Interesting that you even “think”, I use the word with great qualification, that you could consider disappointment. Also I make no judgement about you. You have clearly done that to yourself and put yourself on some fictitious high ground. Realization that you have cherished a stupid fairytale will likely hurt. I will not be giving you additional attention. Blow your wade!

  • Shawn Willis

    I’m assuming you are referring to why your omnipotent God created and/or allowed evil? By evil, I mean allowing 2 year old humans to be raped and others to die in agonising pain as a result of starvation or disease.

  • Martha Arenas

    You are correct

  • God believers seek to become stupid. It makes their faith stronger. It seems it is comforting to many people to be stupid and not have realizations about the horrible things present in the world.
    I doubt people are naturally stupid. IT comes from their upbringing. I remember being an intense learner when I was 8 years old and frankly cannot stop.

  • Aren’t you guys familiar with the scientific studies done on prayer? SMH

  • Doubting Thomas

    Yes. SMH

  • Doubting Thomas

    I don’t believe that “god believers seek to become stupid.” It’s just that they use bad methodology when trying to ascertain truth which often leads to them holding beliefs that can be called stupid. The people themselves aren’t stupid nor are they trying to become that way.

  • Shawn Willis

    How did you “overcome” this logical contradiction, and did it involve an appeal to faith or reason?

  • Martha Arenas

    Oh, don’t think overcome is the right word rather, understood, because with understanding also comes the discovery of my own (and society’s) responsibility on it all instead of the conquest that overcoming implies.

    My apologies for the gross oversimplification but, free will together with the journey towards transcendence, truly solves it all. I wish I had the time and the space to elaborate for you. Unfortunately, via this medium, that is not possible.

  • Shawn Willis

    So to oversimplify further, (because I can’t understand what free will or journeying towards transcendence have to do with why your God created the potentiality for evil, does nothing measurable to save innocent humans from it, and also created a realm of eternal suffering for “sinners” ruled over by a personal embodiment of it) is your “solution” an appeal to faith or reason?

  • Martha Arenas

    Faith and reason are not mutually exclusive. It takes both for humans to thrive, we even place faith on our scientific community. I took a long time for me to slowly get to where I am. For 7 years of my life, I was “faithless.” I began at a point similar to where Veronica is at, ridiculing, calling names, etc. Then, I moved to a stage similar with where you are at engaging with others in arguments to a point to which, they could not longer answer to, basically outsmarting people with less education. It took a long journey to get to where I am at. Thus, trying to give a comprehensive explanation of free will and journeying would take long and extensive conversations paired with reputable research sources. Done any other way would be similar to introducing a 6 year old to math by starting with trigonometry.

    A VERY brief summary: as I advanced on my degrees, every time I came across intentional “evil,” it was so because individual decisions that , sometimes, turned into communal acts or cultural “identities,” Though I didn’t realize it at first. Then I was confronted with the reality that faith and reason are certainly NOT contradictory. A few examples:

    Fr. Georges Lemaître, Formulator of the Big Bang Theory
    Fr. Gregor Mendel, Father of Modern Genetics
    Sr. Mary Kenneth Keller, Pioneer of Computer Science

    In addition, every anthropological and many biological studies show the indispensability of religion for human evolution. crucial for the development of symbolic language, and the rise of modern cultures. In the history of humanity, every culture, everywhere, at every point in time has developed a belief system. When a human behavior is so universal, scientists often argue that it must be an evolutionary adaptation along the lines of standing upright. I had to accept this reality to pass my college courses.Thus, I started asking myself why is belief is so necessary and slowly but surely, the answers got to me by studying both for and against reputable arguments.

    Here is just one of the multiple resources I studied:

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4958132/

    Be well my friend.

  • Shawn Willis

    Faith and reason are not mutually exclusive in that one can exist without the other, but when applied to any individual question I argue they most certainly are. An individual has either decided that a statement is either true or false (there’s also an unknown position, but you can’t use faith to get there) based on automatic acceptance of someone else’s decision or edict, or they use their own mind to determine if there is sufficient weight of evidence or logical argument to reach a conclusion.
    Furthermore whether someone is a theologian does not automatically prove that they have relied on both faith and reason in producing a scientific theory. They could be, but it doesn’t automatically follow. To my knowledge Lemaitre’s scientific hypothesis for the physical origins of the universe did not include “that God did it in 6 days”, or even a mention of God, so I’m arguing that aspect of his life’s work was entirely based on observation of reality and reason. He certainly didn’t get it from the bible and to my knowledge didn’t claim God told him.
    Whether religion has been indispensable for human evolution can be argued against quite strongly (in fact it doesn’t take much looking into the history of the Christian or Islamic faiths to see how much they contributed to holding back the scientific, social and ethical evolution of humans), but that doesn’t at all get us closer to how you convinced yourself that an entirely benevolent God (of love) created and allows the continued existence of evil and suffering.
    If you don’t want to answer then just say so, but hiding behind “its too complex to explain” is really just giving up.
    Alternatively, what do you believe are the advantages to a universe containing evil and suffering, as there must be some if your God saw fit to create them. Remember, they have to be advantages to everyone, including those born into a life resembling your hell.

  • M Opinero

    You have it the other way around. When stupid people wise up they becomes Christians. Constantine the Great and Blaise Pascal for example are non-believers. Only had disdain for the church, both had a profound spiritual experience. I suggest you read Pensees where you will find Pascal’s Wager. In 1927 Fr. Georges Lemaître, a Belgian Catholic priest and physicist first proposed an expanding model of the universe. Two years later Hubble came up with the big bang theory.

    More than seventy thousand people (young and old, believers and non-believers) witnessed the miracles of Fatima. If you think everything can be explained by Physics then I pity you. Faith and doubt goes hand in hand and Chris Williams explained it beautifully.

  • Your comment is laughable. If everything cannot be explained by physics that is only because we have not yet discovered the physics. The universe does not care if we know about it. If we want to know about it, it takes hard work, not reading and old book. Because you do not understand any physics is exactly why you think there are “other” explanations for how the world works.

    I will agree with you on one point however is that sometimes stupid people become Christians when they are less stupid and that is only because they become dishonest and turn into charlatans. There aren’t any gods or anything supernatural, and all religious dogma is ancient bullshit not applicable to the modern world and when it is used as a model it is dangerous and detrimental to people and society.

    What is a “spiritual experience”? A hallucination most likely.

  • M Opinero

    I’m very happy that even for a few seconds you experienced the gift of laughter. I pray that God would count you worthy to have a profound spiritual experience that could change your faithless, hopeless, angry and miserable existence.

  • You are delusional and merely look for a false excuse to somehow qualify and discount, what you think about my existence, which by the way is based on truth and reality, instead of realizing your bullshit and phony spiritual existence. Belief in things that do not exist is not hopeless or miserable? Wake up from your brainwashed existence. SMH

  • Ah,do they seek to use bad methodology? WOW!
    Stop making excuses for stupid people and maybe tell them to become educated.

  • Doubting Thomas

    They don’t seek to use bad methodology. They’ve either been taught it or, as I’ve stated before, it’s human nature.

    Ad I think your idea to tell stupid people to become educated is stupid. You should educate yourself.