Clearing Up Some Christian Confusions about “Doubt”
Frederick Buechner famously wrote that “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” Several Christian writers have extolled the virtues of doubt—even for Christian living. Two of them are the great English Methodist pastor and theologian Leslie Weatherhead in The Christian Agnostic (1965) and Gregory Boyd in The Benefit of the Doubt (2013). (I have reviewed Boyd’s book here earlier.) Paul Tillich, of course, famously claimed that doubt is part of faith in The Dynamics of Faith (1957).
As I have moved into semi-mainline, moderate Protestantism (neither fundamentalist nor liberal) I have increasingly encountered this Christian valorizing of doubt in sermons and informal conversations. I grew up, however, in a form of Christian life that treated doubt as pernicious and destructive of true Christian faith. I remember one evangelist who preached that we should always “believe our beliefs and doubt our doubts!”
Recently I re-read Emil Brunner’s Dogmatics III: The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith and the Consummation (1962). There the Swiss theologian criticizes the common Christian attitude that says “I believe; help Thou my unbelief”—as an expression of normal Christian faith. He says there that one should struggle to move beyond this tension between faith and doubt so that doubt moves into the background and faith in God emerges as dominant.
And yet one of my favorite Bill Gaither songs is the haunting “I Believe; Help Thou My Unbelief.” (I can’t quote the whole song here but you can find the lyrics on the web and hear it sung by the Gaither Vocal Band and others on Youtube.) I say it is one of my favorite songs because of its brutal honesty.
Is doubt a necessary, even helpful aspect of Christian faith? Should faith conquer all doubt so that we regard as heroes of Christian faith those who seem to have risen above all doubt?
I think the answers to these questions must begin with definitions of “doubt.” Much confusion is caused in Christian (as other) conversations by multiple (unstated) meanings of words.
Insofar as “doubt” indicates skepticism toward God, genuine unbelief, resistance to the submission of trust, I judge it to be always only a stage on the way to stronger faith and not an element of faith itself. This “doubt” is a disposition that resists trusting reliance on the truth of God and God’s Word. This disposition is an indicator of the continuing liveliness of “the flesh” (as Paul calls the fallen human nature). It is a sign of need for greater submission to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit renewing the mind.
Insofar as “doubt” means lack of absolute certainty it is merely a sign of finitude. Similarly, insofar as “doubt” means partial understanding (of God and God’s ways) it is merely a sign of finitude. I take it Paul is referring to these when he says that now we see in a glass dimly and only in the future will we see face-to-face. In this sense of “doubt” it is an element in faith because it constitutes admission of not-being-God. We are not capable, at least in this life, of “thinking God’s thoughts after him.” His ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts. Admitting that is no sign of unbelief and stands in no tension with true faith.
Insofar as “doubt” means questioning and wrestling with notions about God we are told to believe but have trouble believing I judge it to be part of the process of “examined faith.” We are instructed in the New Testament to “test all things” and “hold fast to that which is right.” Questioning, examining, reflecting, thinking critically, using our God-given intellects to reason—these can look like “doubting God” when they are only doubting human ideas about God with a disposition of wanting to believe and understand only what God has revealed. This “doubting” is an aspect of what James Sire has called Discipleship of the Mind (1990).
I think it would be helpful if people would make clearer what “doubt” they mean when they talk about doubt as a positive aspect of the life of faith, of Christian living. Insofar as doubt spurs us on to greater dependence on God’s revelation and faith and insofar as doubt causes us to question half-baked notions promoted by Christian communicators it is positive. Insofar as doubt constitutes a disposition of resistance to God’s self-communication and dependence on him alone for self-understanding and understanding of answers to life’s ultimate questions communicated in God’s Word it stands in tension with faith and is something to overcome with prayer: “Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief.”