Doubt as a Spiritual Discipline

Doubt as a Spiritual Discipline January 14, 2021

Doubting faith main image
Source: J.L. Gutierrez

Doubt within the Christian faith can be a time of great anguish. It can also be very lonely. Oftentimes, due to fear, we are left to deal with the struggle on our own because we don’t want people to think that we are weak.

However, doubt is not an attribute of the weak, but rather it demonstrates the mental fortitude of the strong. Doubt demonstrates a person’s ability to critically think. That within their critical thinking, they may discover something about their belief that makes them feel uneasy. Sometimes, we can identify what those incongruities are, and sometimes it’s just a feeling. Regardless, the willingness to confront those feelings takes great strength – and faith. This uneasiness is often why some prefer not to critically think about their faith at all.

Why is Doubt Taboo?

Throughout the history of Christianity, the idea of doubt has been presented as something antithetical to faith. Even today many preach the idea that doubting is a sin. For many, doubt is a dangerous idea that could easily make the doubter spiral into a nihilistic rabbit hole.

Through the years, I have heard many church leaders using language that positions doubt in opposition to being a Christian; that when the individual should encounter doubt, they are to get rid of it; that you can not have doubt and faith at the same time. This is a misunderstanding of the nature of faith. I believe we should not flee from doubt, but run towards it, embrace it, and confront it for what it is.

Doubt is a psychological mechanism humans have to evaluate the probable truthfulness of propositions. For the philosopher Descartes, doubt was so fundamental to human existence that he believed it is the only thing that cannot be denied. In other words, to doubt is to know that you exist. He famously said, “Cogito, ergo sum” or, “I think therefore I am.” This means that although there are many things you can doubt, the only thing you cannot doubt is your ability to doubt – or think. Therefore, Descartes believed doubt was the chief constituent of knowledge about the self and the world around it.

For Christians, doubt should not be viewed as negative, but a positive protective mechanism that helps us to evaluate what we hear, read, and how we practice our faith. When people tell us not to doubt, what they are saying is that we should not evaluate our beliefs; that we should blindly accept what we have been told.

In reality, the opposite is true – our beliefs are defined and strengthened through doubt.

Many of us avoid doubt because we are afraid of what it will do to our deeply held convictions. How often do we cycle back through some of our core theological beliefs and re-evaluate them? Not very often, if ever, for many of us. The reason is likely the fear that a long-held belief may turn out to be incorrect. This fear often results in panic when we encounter something that sounds reasonable but contradicts something we already believe.

When Christians are confronted with major religious doubts, they are oftentimes unprepared for the psychological experience because the Church has failed to practice doubt as a spiritual discipline. As a result, when doubt sets in many turn away from God instead of toward Him. It’s even worse for those who attend churches that actively preach against doubting.

Even Jesus Wrestled with Doubt

In Luke 4:1-13, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. We oftentimes focus on the temptations themselves when reading this story. However, for Jesus to be truly tempted He must have experienced some level of doubt. It was through this doubting mechanism that Jesus was able to re-evaluate the beliefs He thought was true. In the end, what Jesus learned was that the doubt The Satan put in His mind simply reaffirmed what He believed to be true.

Perhaps the most significant episode of doubt that Jesus experienced was in the Garden of Gethsemane. In Luke 22:43-44, Jesus prays to the Father and asks that this cup be taken from Him. The anxiety related to His doubt was so great His sweat dripped as blood.

How You Can Encourage Healthy Doubt in Church

If there are not leaders within a church who can help those who have doubts, then you may never know which congregants have serious spiritual struggles (as they will likely not feel comfortable admitting when they do.) Below are four simple ways churches can help to foster healthy doubt in their congregations.

First, it is important to acknowledge that doubt is not just a natural part of being a Christian, but being human. People need to know that they are not the only ones who experience doubt – they are not alone.

Second, provide safe places or venues for questions (e.g. youth group, small group, mentoring, etc.)

Third, teach people how to learn and think for themselves. Too often churches feel like their job is to just provide answers to tough questions. Instead, the Church should teach critical thinking. People don’t typically learn this in school, so the Church can help to foster the development of this skill.

Fourth, make doubt and questioning a part of the church’s culture. Leaders should Preach and teach on doubt. Leaders should share their own experiences of doubt and allow others to share their experiences. The more people who can participate the easier it will be for those experiencing doubt to come forward.

 

Doubt is not the enemy – blind adherence to what one has been taught is. Encourage healthy dialogue within your church or community by offering safe spaces to have dialogues.


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