Is Doubt a Sign of Spiritual Weakness or What? (Two New Books about the Role of Doubt in Christian Living)

Is Doubt a Sign of Spiritual Weakness or What? (Two New Books about the Role of Doubt in Christian Living)

When I was a kid growing up in church (how’s that for a stereotypical opening of a paragraph?) a favorite saying of pastors and evangelists was “Doubt your doubts and believe your beliefs!” As if doubt (and here “doubt” will always be about God and the truth of revelation) is something you overcome by sheer will power. And as if doubt is necessarily something negative to be shunned rather than embraced or at least lived with.

In that form of Christian life that encouraged a kind of super-spirituality (I found Francis Schaeffer’s little book on that subject liberating as an early twenty-something Christian in that spiritual environment) “doubt” was an enemy and having doubts meant a lack of faith which meant sin in life. So the solution to doubt was twofold: will power to overcome sin and waiting on the Holy Spirit for a new “infilling.” So, indirectly, at least, shame was heaped on anyone who struggled with doubt.

One of the reasons I couldn’t remain in that form of Christian life was that I couldn’t help having doubts; there was simply no “cure” for doubt—at least not that I could find. And I felt that doubt, not chronic, disabling doubt but simple human lack of absolute certainty, was not necessarily a sign of spiritual weakness but a normal part of being finite rather than infinite (or deified).

Now let me be clear, for those who easily misunderstand, that by doubt here I do not mean chronic skepticism let alone cynicism about the truth of revelation and about God. I mean simply that lack of absolute certainty, that awareness that one could be wrong, that nagging little feeling that what you believe falls short of absolute certainty and therefore could, at least theoretically, be false.

Because of the way I was raised, with even the slightest hint of doubt being interpreted as a sign of spiritual weakness if not at attack of Satan (!), I was afraid to admit it to any of my spiritual mentors or peers. I covered it up, hid it and pretended that I had absolute certainty about everything I was supposed to believe.

Eventually I was delivered from that bondage partly through a book by a wise colleague named Daniel Taylor. The book is entitled The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment. I found it liberating, not because it made me comfortable with doubt but because it gave me permission to be human and put the emphasis where it belongs—not on arrival at absolute certainty but on commitment in spite of doubts. (Taylor relied heavily on Kierkegaard.)

Around the same time I discovered an older book by British Methodist pastor Leslie Weatherhead—a prolific Christian writer of the mid-20th century. It is entitled The Christian Agnostic. But, again, the theme is not chronic skepticism but learning to live with fallibility and therefore with doubt.

Around the same time (my mid-twenties) I read Paul Tillich’s The Dynamics of Faith. There Tillich describes doubt as a necessary element of faith. In other words, the two are not in tension but depend on each other. Without doubt, Tillich argues, faith would not be faith but sight.

All of these authors taught me that absolute certainty is eschatological. They taught me to be real about life here and now, “between the times”—not to embrace doubt as something to be proud of but to live with it as a real sign of finitude and even as something that, if accepted in the right way, can help faith, as commitment, become stronger.

I have to admit, however, that all of this remained somewhat abstract and intellectual. I read more books that bolstered this different view of faith and doubt. Books by Fredrick Buechner (“Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith; it keeps it moving”) and Lesslie Newbigin (Proper Confidence). I settled into it somewhat uncomfortably with the nagging feeling that, even though I felt it to be true intellectually, I still might be unspiritual for accepting doubt as normal and not striving harder to overcome it once and for all. I still worried that my spiritual mentors, the people who “brought me up in the faith,” would shame me for having doubts and learning to live with them.

Part of that uneasiness came from attending a church that reminded me of my superspiritual childhood and youth. It was a Baptist church, but the pastor’s sermons and Bible studies and much of the ethos of the church communicated to me (maybe not to others) that true faith, once really acquired, banishes all doubt. There, as in my later adolescent years, I suffered the cognitive dissonance of two conflicting feelings. On the one hand, Sunday after Sunday I was being told, indirectly if not directly, that faith overcomes doubt, so anyone who struggles with doubt must not yet have acquired true faith—which in that church was a matter of sheer will power. On the other hand, I sensed that many of the people of the church were pretending, living lives of unreality, putting on a mask when they came to church. It did not feel like a safe place to admit doubts and spiritual struggles.

Eventually we left that church and prayed that God would lead us to one where we could be real people. Where we would not have to put on masks and pretend to “have it all together” without flaws. That’s exactly what happened. The very first church we visited, after leaving the one we had been attending for eight years (and that I had been wanting to leave for four of those years!), was what we were looking for. That very first Sunday the pastor preached on doubt and gave the congregation permission to be human, including admitting that their Christian lives were not and never would be free of risk and commitment in spite of very real doubts. I believe finding that church at that time, so easily and quickly, was a “God thing.”

Also around that time I began watching and listening to gospel music videos (now DVDs) produced by Bill Gaither. (No, this is not an advertisement!) I will never forget the impact one of them made in me. It brought into my “inner man” (to borrow a concept from Pietist founder Philipp Jakob Spener) what I had appropriated from books and sermons into my theology. I don’t remember the title of the video, but it was filmed with a group of “old time gospel singers”—most of them not great musicians professionally but sincere and singing the music of my childhood—uplifting and inspiring music of my generation. Right in the middle of that session several of them began to share “testimonies” of their struggles with doubt—not before they became Christians or before they “received the Holy Spirit”—but recently, then and there, as “mature Christian believers” and “full time gospel evangelists.” It was shocking to me to hear their stories—not because they dismayed me but because they spoke powerfully into my life about what I had learned intellectually from books.

Then Gaither, who many consider a giant of Christian faith (author of numerous Christian songs sung in churches and recorded by Christian recording artists) sat at the piano and, unrehearsed, and in a very unpolished way, sang a song he wrote that never “caught on,” so to speak. “I believe; help Thou my unbelief. I take the finite risk of trusting like a child. I believe; help Thou my unbelief.  I walk into the unknown trusting like a child.” (Google it for all the lyrics. The specific performance that so touched me inwardly isn’t on youtube so far as I can find, but later performances of the song by Gaither and his “Vocal Band” are.)

It’s strange how something you’ve learned from books and accepted intellectually can still need to penetrate into your heart. That is what my new church and that song, sung in that particular way at that time, did for me. (Yes, I’m an unapologetic pietist! Partly, at least, because of experiences such as these.)

Recently two friends have published books about doubt and Christian faith and I recommend both highly. Both are filled with personal stories of life experiences by these Christian leaders, men looked up to by thousands because of their teaching and writing. These are not your typical conservative Christian “testimony books” like so many that crowd the shelves of Christian “bookstores.” (I put that in scare quotes because most of them sell very few books and the ones they do sell tend to be fluff.)

If you are someone who struggles with struggling with doubt I recommend these two wonderful new books and that you find a home church where you can be real and not a Sunday “mask wearer”—someone who has to pretend to  have no spiritual struggles or doubts.

The books are: Gregory A. Boyd, Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty (Baker, 2013) and Daniel Taylor, The Skeptical Believer: Telling Stories to Your Inner Atheist (Bog Walk Press, 2013). Neither one encourages skepticism or wallowing in doubt that avoids risk and commitment; both reveal how the authors and others came to real faith in spite of and perhaps even partly through uncertainty.

Unfortunately, so much American Christianity, perhaps especially conservative evangelical Christianity, is mired in inauthenticity. Authenticity is what Boyd and Taylor are talking about. Being authentic means being real; embracing the real and not pretending to be something we’re not and aren’t meant to be. Absolute certainty that banishes all doubt is unreal, inauthentic, a chimera, an illusion. And yet so much conservative Christianity not only promotes it but expects it and shames people who dare to admit they haven’t arrived at that time and place when we will see face to face and know as we are known. There remains, for now, only faith, hope and love and these are enough.

  • Scott F

    With young people saying that they feel unwelcome in the church because doubt is not allowed, this could be one of the biggest issues facing the church as it tries to move into the 21st century.

    One of our ministers recently preached a sermon on the questions that swirl around the ending of Mark’s Gospel. His message was that he did not need to be certain that he knew how the original ended in order to stay a Christian. It was unprecedented and jaw-dropping. I can only hope he will followup on this theme in future sermons. If my luck stays true to form, so many people will end up complaining that he will have to drop the idea.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Your thoughts remind me of a Mark Heard song, “These Plastic Halos” The chorus is:

    We hide our pain
    We try to laugh
    Fools to think our tears
    Would provoke holy wrath

    (listen to a YouTube cover)

    He spent his career kicking against the suppression of authenticity by Fundamentalist Christianity.

  • labreuer

    Consider an alternative definition of ‘faith’:

    1) Hear truth-claims that might be from God, you, or the Enemy.

    2) Decide whether you heard anything; if you decide you did, will you reject it or tentatively accept it and test it to know its fruit?

    3) Result: you either become more loyal to God, more loyal to the Enemy, or more deaf, blind, and hard-hearted. (Arguably the third is also allegiance to the Enemy, albeit an unknowing allegiance.)

    Maybe this isn’t a new definition of ‘faith’; it is inspired by Jon Mark Ruthven’s What’s Wrong with Protestant Theology? Tradition vs. Biblical Emphasis. It has support in Mt 7:15-20, Rom 10:17, Heb 11:1, and Mark 4:25, among other places.

    With the above formulation, the role of ‘doubt’ becomes blatantly obvious: not everything we hear is from God! (I would argue that some of the stuff that comes from us is ok, given Eph 2:10.) Not every interpretation of scripture is correct! John 8:44 is instructive and not only with the last clause: “[Satan is] the father of lies.”

  • Matthew

    I am almost done with Taylor’s new book (I loved ‘the myth of certainty’ too) and I just started Boyd’s book (introduction was great). I second your recommendation!

  • Sam

    Often certainty drifts into explanations of how God did or does what He does. Those who declare they know with certainty are often exhibiting some deadly combination of foolishness and pride. I think if our reasoning about God and life take us to a place of awe, humility, excitement and love about God and our fellowman and even creation that is good. I too very much appreciated Taylor’s book on The Myth of Certainty. Good thoughts, thanks for sharing.

  • Evelyn

    Have you read Peter Rollins, ‘The Idolatry of God, breaking our addiction to certainty and satisfaction’? I have not, but have read about it and would be interested in your thoughts, if you are familiar with the book.

    • Roger Olson

      I have read three of Rollins’s books and heard him speak. I thought about reading this one, but I felt I knew where he would go in it and so passed on it. But I keep thinking of reading it. I like reading Rollins. I refer to him a couple times in my forthcoming book The Journey of Modern Theology–as a postmodern disciple of John Caputo, a popularizer of Caputo’s ideas. I don’t know if he intends that or not, but I see what he does as fleshing out Caputo’s rather abstract ideas about God and knowledge of God. So far, though, I find Rollins better at criticism than construction. I wish he would move on to constructive theology.

      • Evelyn

        Thank you; a lot of disparate pieces have just clicked into place for me.

    • Thursday1

      When I read Rollins, I think, “This is very First World.” It’s true that many First Worlders look on religion, including Christianity, as a form of afterlife insurance, but things look very different from other perspectives.

      A good bit, not all, of the emerging church literature is a rationalization for maintaining a cultural bond with Christianity despite while having lost any sense of robust supernaturalism. Third Worlders don’t have any doubts about the existence of the supernatural: it’s there.

      • Roger Olson

        The problem is, many Third Worlders (your term, not mine) ALSO have “no doubts” about other things–e.g., magic–that most of us think they should question and doubt. (By “magic” I mean automatic power of certain words and/or gestures to create or change reality.)

        • Thursday1

          Should we question whether they exist or whether they are good? Two different questions.

      • Evelyn

        Bearing in mind I have only heard Rollins, not read him, I think this partly misses the point of what he’s saying. If I have understood Rollins correctly, he argues that people use God to fulfill their need for security, certainty, self-fulfillment / actualization. That makes God an idol. It may be true that Rollins is writing from a First World perspective, but that doesn’t mean that people dealing with a different set of problems aren’t tempted to ‘use’ God in the same way, simply for different ends. IOW, I”m not convinced the issue is about belief or a lack thereof in the supernatural; I understand it to be what the supernatural (however the individual interprets that) is used for.

        As a side note, I’m not sure the first world / third world distinctions are helpful. There are all sorts of people, with all sorts of levels of education, financial and other resources, and sets of beliefs and so on all over the world. I have known plenty of very ‘first world’ individuals who are very sure about the existence of the supernatural.

        Bringing that back to doubt / faith: it’s only by embracing the uncertainty about the existence of God that we can plug into a much bigger vision of what God IS and does. So pastors / churches that discourage an exploration of uncertainty end up encouraging a therapeutic, and ultimately empty, faith.

        Apologies to Mr Rollins if I’ve misrepresented him.

        • Roger Olson

          I think you have him right up until some of his most recent writings where he seems to go so far into negative theology that I’m not sure whether he believes in God anymore. There comes a point in negative theology, pushed to an extreme, where God simply disappears.

        • Thursday1

          Perhaps this better goes here.

          I also have to question Rollins’ assumption that a certain belief in God is necessarily satisfying or comforting. On the contrary it can be absolutely terrifying. There are too many examples to cite, but I believe the Reformation got started because Martin Luther was absolutely certain that he was going to be damned.

          • Evelyn

            I feel on very shaky ground trying to argue what I think others are saying rather than writing from my own convictions but I’ll try… I don’t think the issue is belief per se; it is belief in a particular kind of theistic deity. If what you believe in is an angry god of wrath and judgment, you may end up with a different set of issues, kwim? (as in Luther).

            Speaking as me, it strikes me that a lot of this is about the pilgrimage from a more infantile faith to a more adult one. The Church has a tendency to encourage an immature faith; one way that happens is by the inability to embrace people’s doubts and fears. It seems to me an adult faith is ‘owned’ rather than performed – and to own it, a person has to un-own it at times; be willing to enter that scary place where all we thought was true is deconstructed / turned upside down to see what falls out. Doubt is a midwife for that process. Eventually, sometimes, a new and stronger faith is built. But sometimes not. And that has to be ok too.

          • Roger Olson

            All of that I have affirmed. But, if after all one becomes convinced he or she does not believe in God or does not know whether he or she believes in God he or she should not expect Christians to affirm that atheism or agnosticism. If Christianity is compatible with anything and everything, it is nothing.

          • Evelyn

            Amen.

          • Thursday1

            to own it, a person has to un-own it at times; be willing to enter that scary place where all we thought was true is deconstructed / turned upside down to see what falls out.

            I strongly disagree with this.

          • Thursday1

            Reply to Evelyn’s as yet unpublished comment.

            I strongly resist the idea that people who have struggled with doubt have a stronger faith than those who don’t. For many people, God is just there. You also don’t need doubt God’s existence to engage in critical thinking. It seems really dubious to claim that we moderns with our doubt are actually superior to our forefathers or the people in the Third World who actually seem to have a more vital relationship with God than we in the First World. The reality is that the church in the First World is rather sick, and I am skeptical that we should hold it up as an example to anybody. People, like Rollins, who are drifting into a space where you don’t really believe in God anymore do seem to be a symptom of that.

            I’m not saying at all that we should exclude people with doubt from our faith communities, and probably most thoughtful people have had a little bit of doubt at one time or another, but if you’re really struggling with doubt on an ongoing basis (not necessarily because you are cynical) I really do think that is a spiritual problem. Not something we should beat up or blame someone for, as certainty is something of a gift, but not something we should try to spin as a virtue either.

          • Evelyn

            “You also don’t need doubt God’s existence to engage in critical thinking.”

            Agreed. Didn’t mean to imply that was the case.

            “It seems really dubious to claim that we moderns with our doubt are actually superior to our forefathers or the people in the Third World who actually seem to have a more vital relationship with God than we in the First World.”

            I never said anything about superiority. I do think you need to be very careful about making assumptions about whole people groups, whether based on location in time or in space. There are very few things that can meaningfully be said about ‘developing nations’ or the entire population os all G7 countries, or everyone in the past. As an historian, I can tell you the past isn’t what you think it was – and it certainly wasn’t uniform!

    • Thursday1

      I also have to question Rollins’ assumption that a certain belief in God is necessarily satisfying or comforting. On the contrary it can be absolutely terrifying. There are too many examples to cite, but I believe the Reformation got started because Martin Luther was absolutely certain that he was going to be damned.

      • Sam

        That may be true but once he believed himself to be one those loved by God, then he was greatly comforted.

  • steve rogers

    It cannot be a coincidence that this topic is getting such attention. When I began writing my own book on doubt a couple of years ago, I thought I was breaking new ground. But within a year I began to encounter all kinds of books on the topic. This seems to be an itch that is getting a good scratching in the body of Christ currently.
    There are, no doubt, several reasons for this as diverse as the backgrounds and spiritual searching of the doubters. I happen to think that at the forefront is the Holy Spirit’s confronting controlling hierarchies that have held many Christians in captivity to creedal conformity and unquestioned compliance to leadership structures. A breakthrough of truth is setting us free. We need such blogs and books to encourage us along in the journey and help us break the gravitational pull of the shame that has restrained us. Thanks, Roger.

  • Thursday1

    Most people in premodern societies, including the contemporary Third World, have absolutely zero doubt that a supernatural world, filled with gods, ghosts, angels and demons, exists. People might argue about its precise character, but there is no doubt of its existence. Your average person in South Africa probably believes more absolutely in the existence of the tokoloshe than the average churchgoer in North America believes in the existence of Jesus.

    • Roger Olson

      It would be helpful if you went the next step and explained the point of this illustration.

  • labreuer

    Viewing pride as refusing to doubt things that ought to be doubted, I recently came across this fascinating section of God’s response to Job:

    Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:

    “Dress for action like a man;
    I will question you, and you make it known to me.
    Will you even put me in the wrong?
    Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?
    Have you an arm like God,
    and can you thunder with a voice like his?

    “Adorn yourself with majesty and dignity;
    clothe yourself with glory and splendor.
    Pour out the overflowings of your anger,
    and look on everyone who is proud and abase him.
    Look on everyone who is proud and bring him low
    and tread down the wicked where they stand.
    Hide them all in the dust together;
    bind their faces in the world below.
    Then will I also acknowledge to you
    that your own right hand can save you.

    Before I continue, the bit about “Dress for action” is “gird up your loins”—the thing that’s required if you’re going to get up from the ashes and stand.

    I found it fascinating that God says if Job can put the proud in their place, he would tell Job “your own right hand can save you”. We know that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” We know that he will not “abide” the arrogant man. But God takes it to a whole new level in Job!

  • Roger Olson

    No, but thanks for alerting me to it.

  • Roger Olson

    Nice sermon. Imagine the shame many listeners would feel. This is the kind of sermon that I heard growing up and they drove me crazy. It’s as if being saved, having faith, suddenly (or even eventually) raises us up above being human to some god-like level of absolute certainty. I’ve never met anyone who I thought had that in this life.

  • Sam

    Luther hated uncertainty and determined that it had no place for a minister of the gospel. He mocked and ridiculed Erasmus for his more cautious thinking. I know some Catholics that also despise uncertainty. Of course people that despise uncertainty always are convinced of the rightness of their opinions. This desire to be certain seems more a human condition, even though I would like to blame Luther, seeing his bombastic certainty as part of his legacy to Protestantism. For me the truth of the matter is we all like to be right and it is part of our human condition that we have to guard against. One can also go to far and be skeptical about everything. This also is a form of certainty – demanding that you can’t know anything. We should avoid both extremes. I would like to hear more on the principles we should adhere to that would guide us to avoiding both extremes.

  • Chris Thomas

    A favorite Watchman Nee quote he termed, “The apocrypha beatitude”: “Blessed is he who knows he may be mistaken.”

  • Jeff Weddle

    now remains faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love–not faith!


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