Without a Doubt?
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Is something wrong with me? I have begun to think there must be.
Over the years I have read numerous Christian books that either are about DOUBT or include a discussion of doubt. Most that I have read make doubt either a virtue or a normal part of Christian living. Most of them seem to be mainly therapeutic in nature, by which I don’t mean wrong or bad, assuring Christians that doubts about God are normal. Some even go so far as to say that doubt is part of faith.
Let me begin with a modern theological classic “The Dynamics of Faith” by theologian Paul Tillich. According to Tillich, doubt is an element of faith; they are inseparable. Good faith includes doubt—about God. Another theologian described doubt as “the ants in the pants of faith; it keeps it moving.”
One of the best Christian books I have ever read is by my former colleague Dan Taylor: “The Myth of Certainty.” Some interpreted the book as promoting doubt; I didn’t read it that way. Probably, however, Dan was giving Christians permission to doubt. Then came (and I’m only naming a few books of this genre here) my friend Greg Boyd’s book “Benefit of the Doubt.” Finally, I have to mention and recommend my former student Austin Fischer’s excellent book “Faith in the Shadows: Finding Christ in the Midst of Doubt.” I helped him get it published.
All of these (with the possible exception of Tillich’s “Dynamics of Faith”) are excellent books and I enjoyed reading them and I have recommended them to students and other many times over the years.
I have also heard many sermons that assure congregations that doubting is normal and not bad or something to overcome. The theme of such sermons (and to a certain existent of the books mentioned above) seems to be that a normal Christian should come to terms with doubt and not struggle against doubt as if doubt were a sign of spiritual weakness.
However, my favorite theologian, Emil Brunner, in Volume 3 of his Dogmatics, treats Christian doubt about God and Jesus Christ differently. According to the elderly Brunner (volume 3 was written after his retirement from academic teaching in Zurich) doubt is not a virtue or even part of the normal Christian life but something to struggle against.
I don’t know what I think about all of that BECAUSE I can honestly say, and here is my confession, I have never experienced doubt about God, either about God’s existence or God’s goodness. Nor have I ever experienced doubt about Jesus Christ as God and Savior or about my salvation by his grace through faith. I almost feel guilty now, confessing that, because it seems so rare, maybe even pathological!
I do not pity Christians who doubt, nor do I accuse them. I just don’t understand Christianity that is mixed with serious doubt. I’m not talking about doubting some message ABOUT God or Jesus Christ or salvation. Doubting messages delivered by people about God is one thing and that I have done almost every day of my adult life. In fact, that probably began when I was an adolescent. But that’s not what the authors I mention above mean by doubt and it’s not what I’m talking about here, what I’m confessing here.
Over the past twenty to forty years I have moved in Christian circles where doubt has often been affirmed and I mean doubt about God. Sometimes I wonder if Tillich’s theory of faith has “trickled down” into evangelical Christianity (to say nothing of mainline, liberal Christianity). Especially “progressive Christians” seem to make a virtue of doubt.
I simply don’t understand what that feels like because I have never wrestled with doubt or even felt doubt or experienced doubt—about God’s existence, God’s goodness, Jesus Christ as God and Savior, his saving death on the cross, my salvation by his grace through my faith in him, etc. I can honestly say I have never doubted any of that.
So, now, having read those books and heard those sermons, I feel abnormal, like there must be something wrong with me. But, on the other hand, I think compared with most Christians I am prone to doubt much of what I hear in sermons and read in Christian books—especially if they are non-mainstream, not orthodox, quirky, coming from the margins, claiming any sort of new revelation, etc.
I’ll just offer two examples: Years ago I heard a Pentecostal preacher, an executive of a Pentecostal denomination, president of a Pentecostal Bible college, preach about “commanding angels.” He said that he practiced it and all Spirit-filled Christians can do it. I was immediately skeptical. Now that’s the kind of thing I automatically doubt. Another example, a Christian woman, a charismatic, told me she prays for God to change the past. I seriously doubt that God can change the past. (I have discussed why here before.) I didn’t doubt that the prays to God to change the past; I doubted then and doubt now that God can change the past. I doubt much that I hear from Christian evangelists on television and on Youtube, etc.
But I know that I have never doubted God’s existence or goodness, etc. These basic Christian truths, these realities, have always been true to me—both intuitively and rationally. I have real trouble empathizing with Christians who struggle with doubt. I don’t reject them or consider them “lesser Christians” or anything like that. I simply can’t understand them.
This is the first time I have publicly admitted this problem. But, to me, it is only a “problem” insofar as, and if, doubt is, as Tillich argued, an element of faith. It isn’t an element of my faith. But I realize I am out of step with numerous good Christians for whom doubt is a basic element of their faith and with those who assure them that doubt is “normal” for Christians, something to accept, embrace and be comfortable with. So, taking back what I just said, it is a problem for me—with relating to Christians who struggle with doubt.