Should I Doubt God?
Recently I made an admission—to a group of fellow Christian believers—that was met with some surprise, a little shock and perhaps some dismay. Here it is: I can honestly say that I have never doubted God. I mean that I have never doubted God’s existence or God’s goodness and love.
Wait, let me explain a bit more. I have doubted many, very many, messages about God—ones that I have heard from pulpits and lecterns and that I have read.
So why am I saying this? Why does it matter?
In the last several decades the idea that doubt is an essential and good part of faith has become very prominent—even in historically evangelical circles.
As a historian of theology I always ask myself “Where did that idea come from and when?” I usually can’t find any absolute answer. Most ideas have roots too deep to uncover. But I will name one theologian in particular who I think was a catalyst for this idea that doubt is an essential and even good part of faith: Paul Tillich.
In The Dynamics of Faith Tillich praised doubt as a good thing. After that many followed in his footsteps. One Christian writer said that doubt is “the ants in the pants of faith; it keeps faith moving.” (I may be paraphrasing a little there but that’s the essence of his idea.) I’ve heard that quoted from pulpits many times.
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Now I can look at my bookshelf and see at least five books by evangelical-leaning (they may not call themselves evangelicals now) pastors and theologians praising doubt—not as something to work through and get over but as something positive and to be embraced.
I will not doubt or question them—except in my own experience. I don’t really understand this idea of doubt and faith because I’ve never experienced it. From my earliest memories until now I can honestly say I’ve never wrestled with doubt—about God’s existence (and I mean the God of Jesus Christ) or his goodness and love.
You may think “Well, then Roger Olson has never experienced really bad things in his life.” You would be wrong. If I went through a litany of bad experiences I have had, things I have suffered, you would suspect I was seeking pity or sympathy. So I won’t. You will just have to believe me when I say that in my life some pretty awful things have happened. I will just mention one—not to draw pity but to say “Yes, I have experienced real tragedy.” My mother died when I was only two and a half years old. I remember the day she died very clearly. It was traumatic for everyone who loved her. She was only thirty-two years old. She left behind two little boys who ended up in foster care for two years indirectly because of her death. Now, moving on….A song that was sung by soloists in our church (when I was growing up) comes to mind: “Does Jesus Care?” “Oh, yes he cares; I know he cares….” The message I grew up with can be summed up this way: This world is fallen and broken and God works with it that way. Sometimes he intervenes to rescue or heal, but not always. God always has reasons, but we are not privy to his secrets. But we know that when we suffer, God is there suffering with us. And we know that someday this present suffering will be nothing compared with the glory we will experience. Then we will look back on all this suffering (“trials and tribulations”) and see that there was a reason for it. Not that God caused it, but that God had a reason for not intervening to relieve it. In the meantime, sometimes God does intervene in response to prayer so we should pray often and for whoever comes to our mind because God asks us to do that; he wants our participation.
I can honestly say that I have never doubted that message. That message has always made perfect, complete sense to me.
I’m not criticizing Christians who struggle with doubt, but I will say that doubt (about God’s existence and goodness and love) is not something to be embraced and called good or even the norm for Christian living.
Now, as I said, healthy skepticism about messages about God is a good thing. And perhaps I have experienced too much of that in my life. I have heard and read so much nonsense from Christian preachers and writers and theologians that I tend to doubt what they say or write unless I find good reason to believe. People who know me well call me cynical because I am so suspicious of people who use their power and authority to manipulate me and others to “buy” their “new ideas.”
Now someone will ask me about “certainty.” No, I prefer to use the words “certitude” or proper confidence” or even “blessed assurance.” I don’t really claim to “have” certainty about anything. But neither do I struggle with doubt about God and his goodness and love. Not at all. Never have. Maybe that’s a gift. I don’t know. But it has made my life so much easier than otherwise. I thank God for it and wish it for everyone. I do believe that the Holy Spirit can dispel chronic doubt about God at any point in a Christian’s life.
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