Is Doubt a Sin?

Is Doubt a Sin? July 26, 2018

A clip of Elevation mega-pastor Steven Furtick on faith and doubt has generated much discussion recently. My friend and Patheos colleague Owen Strachan wrote a strongly worded response piece to this clip here, which has since been picked up by the Christian Post. The question of the day: Is doubt a sin? For Furtick, the answer is a resounding “No,” for Strachan a resounding “Yes.” While I find much to agree with in Strachan’s response, I believe there is room for a third way.

L: Furtick, R: Strachan

I’ll confess, when I first girded my loins to watch the Furtick clip, I was expecting something a bit worse than what I got. To say Furtick is not my style would be an understatement. (The whole “white guy in skinny pants pretending to be a black pastor” thing… should we tell him?) He first censures a pastoral colleague for encouraging people to pray without doubt, which strikes Strachan as pretty high-handed. I see Strachan’s point here, but I also understand Furtick’s desire to discourage the setting of what may seem an impossibly high bar for people who are literally praying their first prayer. And for his part, Strachan begins by stressing that he doesn’t mean to deny the experience of doubt that even Christians will inevitably feel this side of the Jordan. As imperfect, fallen creatures who still see through a glass darkly, we can expect to have many occasions to pray, “I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief!”

There then follows a stretch of the clip where, shockingly, things aren’t completely terrible. One line, “Faith is not the absence of doubt; it is the means to overcome it” actually struck me as rather nicely put. For a moment, it seems that doubt is given its proper place.

Unfortunately, the center doesn’t hold. By the time Furtick is holding up his Bible and declaring, “If you don’t doubt it, you’re not reading it or you’re reading it with no intent to live it. See my doubt is the evidence of my growth. The closer I get, the more questions I have,” this train has well and truly gone off the tracks. And here is where Strachan and I agree: This is neither healthy nor biblical.

Here I am reminded of a Twitter exchange I once had with Christian musician Audrey Assad, who has recently varied her musical output with attempts to do theology and politics on social media—a dicey enterprise, to say the least. I bear Audrey no ill will and still happily recommend her music, but I can’t say the same for her theological musings. In one thread, she said that one of her big recent revelations was the realization that uncertainty was acceptable. I chose to engage and ask what she meant by “certain.” (As a philosophy nerd, I think “Descartes” when I hear “certain,” so it is always helpful to calibrate such things.) She defined it as “a feeling of assurance about the truth of an idea—with no need to further examine it.” I agreed with her that there are things on which the Bible can be less than perfectly clear and that questions are not problematic in and of themselves, but still, I asked, was there nothing of which she felt she, as a Christian, could be assured? She answered, “Maybe it’s just a phase, but right now I don’t feel sure of much at all. However I’ve chosen not to look at it as a bad thing, but to practice faith and be curious.”

It is precisely this distinctly millennial phenomenon against which Strachan is rightly sounding the alarm. Whatever doubt is, it is certainly not a thing to be embraced or baptized as a sign of spiritual maturity. I chose not to press Audrey for more specifics, but if I’m to take her at her word, a phrase like “I don’t feel sure of much at all” would seem to put essentially everything up for grabs.

Where I begin to part ways with Strachan, however, is where he says that doubt is not merely a weakness, but a sin. It is not merely a manifestation of our imperfect, less-than-omniscient human nature. It is an act of rebellion against God, to be repented of as soon as committed.

To me, this has a similar flavor to sermons that condemn worry as a sin. I feel about worry as I feel about doubt: While both can become unhealthy obsessions, the mere feeling of worry or feeling of doubt is not necessarily a thing one chooses. Often, it’s a thing that simply is. It finds us whether we seek it out or not. One might say it is an affliction. But one can be afflicted and sin not.

Here I think the Lutheran concept of tentatio is helpful. As distinct from oratio (prayer) and meditatio (meditation), tentatio is the process of wrestling painfully with life and Scripture. However, it is a process God can use to refine our hearts as we return to His Word and choose to place our trust in it regardless. Again, to give Furtick his due, he reaches for something like this concept when he talks about trusting God through valleys and walking through to the promise on the other side. (Although to people familiar with Furtick’s Word Faith, prosperity-tinged brand of preaching, the language of “promise” should raise antennae. But that’s a different discussion.) The grain of truth here is that suffering does have a refining effect, a character-building effect. We can tell the people who have wrestled with God by the fact that they walk with a limp.

Still, there’s something off-puttingly exhibitionist about the way Furtick builds and crescendoes into an almost triumphant declaration of doubt. “I HAVE MY DOUBTS!” he thunders. “IS THAT ALL RIGHT? DO YOU NEED TO FIND ANOTHER PASTOR, BECAUSE YOU’VE DISCOVERED THAT THE DUDE WITH THE MIKE HAS DOUBTS?” No, just a pair of ear muffs, thanks.

Here’s the problem: Furtick either can’t or won’t recognize that for some people, doubt is an idol. Too many people, instead of maturely searching Scripture and seeking God in prayer through their doubt, will use it as an excuse to wallow and manipulate those around them. (Some of you have known that person who spams your inbox with questions and announces that unless you answer them right now, he’s going to walk away from the faith, and it will be your fault, he’ll have you know.) They will allow themselves to become those double-minded men James writes about, who are buffeted about by every wind and positively welcome it. Because the longer they can prolong the state of being in self-centered doubt, the longer they can escape putting in the hard work of investing in faith-strengthening relationship, with God and with neighbor.

That sort of behavior, that nursing of doubt, that idolatrous clinging to doubt, I will fully grant Owen, is a sin. But the mere experience of doubt? I must respectfully differ. And in fact, I would caution those who read certain verses to be condemning doubt not to fall into the trap of the very prosperity preachers they rightly reject. We are familiar with the false and damaging teaching that Christians who suffer are only suffering because they haven’t prayed hard enough, or prayed with enough conviction that God will remove the suffering. We call out preachers who say God will rain blessings on us if we only believe. And it’s not that such preachers don’t have their proof-texts they can wave about. You can find individual verses where Jesus or a gospel author seems to make a prosperity promise, provided you ignore the surrounding Scriptures that flatly contradict the prosperity message. I worry that by plucking out and applying certain Scripture verses to say that those who doubt must be in sin, Strachan falls into the same trap.

Then there are those verses that are commonly interpreted in an over-rigid way, such as Jesus’ words to Doubting Thomas. Strachan reads them as a straight-forward, purely negative “rebuke.” In fact, the story of Doubting Thomas has always been a favorite of mine precisely because Jesus does not refuse Thomas’s request for evidence. Indeed, he welcomes it, and more than meets it. Yes, there is also gentle correction in his words, particularly since Thomas had persisted in doubting the good faith testimony of honest witnesses. But to glean from this story that doubt is sinful would be quite a stretch.

Towards the end of his piece, Strachan affirms a binary “light-switch” model of faith (one minute you don’t have it, the next minute you do, by divine fiat), and says any other model will necessarily lead to error, including the error he sees in the Furtick video. I do not share Strachan’s Reformed brand of soteriology, but I pride myself on having a quite well-tuned heresy spidey sense. Reformed voices have been some of the only voices holding the line on sound doctrine in Protestant Christian media spaces for a long time, and for that I am grateful. I am particularly grateful for the fine work Owen has been doing in his space. However, I would like to see if a broader discussion could be opened up, one that includes conservative, Protestant Arminian voices like my own. We may disagree on some things, but I hope and think we can also agree on much that is essential and right and true.

I close with a song that, to me, perfectly encapsulates that tentatio I referred to earlier. Beloved Christian musician Rich Mullins was no stranger to dark nights of the soul, and indeed quietly battled clinical depression throughout the duration of his short life. His song “Hard to Get” was written after a particularly painful bout of wrestling, where he regaled his long-suffering friend Ben Pearson with a rant that made Pearson check the sky for lightning. The next morning found a chagrined Mullins knocking on Pearson’s door way too early to say, “I’m sorry. I wrote a song. You want to hear it?”

And so you’ve been here, all along
I guess

It’s just that You and Your ways
Are just plain hard to get

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