As I lay there looking up at the ceiling, I reached out my hand into the darkness and cried out on the inside, “If you’re there, won’t you let me know?” I spoke to God, whose existence I was uncertain of. I often laid awake at night, wrestling with doubt, wondering if he was there, wondering why he made it so hard to believe.
That’s a picture of my later teenage years. Having grown up in a Christian family, going to church consistently and frequently, I was expected to confess my faith in Jesus and be baptized around the age of thirteen. Thirteen was the supposed age of accountability, when one became eternally responsible for one’s spiritual choices. In other words, I was in danger of hell if I did not believe and experience baptism. But doubt kept me from this response. I knew that I couldn’t fake this one. These questions of ultimate importance demanded their all of me depending on which way I chose. To a young man, this also meant renouncing things like drinking and sex which appeared to me to be the road to fun and social acceptance. Though these social repercussions were certainly in the back of my mind, it was genuine doubt about my understanding of Christianity that bothered me most.
I was particularly disturbed by my understanding of salvation that seemed so dependent on my location in the world and in time. I understood Christianity to say that if I’d been born in “the deep heart of Africa”, where I imagined the Gospel had never been proclaimed, I would be destined for hell even though I’d never had a chance to believe. This seemed to be unjust and unacceptable. What did this say about the God I was supposed to believe in if he sent people to eternal torment for something they had no choice in? In my memory, I didn’t get good answers to these sorts of questions. (Of course, I was fourteen years old, so maybe I wasn’t listening that well!)
Although I eventually did come to faith in Jesus, was it wrong to wrestle with these and further doubts? I’ve always felt like doubting was a necessary part of my faith journey. I’ve identified with other doubters, sometimes so much so that this empathy threw me into murky waters of intense doubt and depression. On the other side of these times, I’ve found a nuanced and more flexible faith.
At the same time, people who seem to have deep faith have always drawn me. Most of the time I’ve equated passion with faith. And sometimes I’ve equated emotion and mysticism and charismatic elements of Christianity with strong faith.
I feel caught between two currents: one that appreciates doubt and wrestling with God and faith; and another that is drawn to what appears a more certain faith characterized by passion.
Perhaps you’ve experienced something similar. You’ve wrestled with your faith and wondered if it was enough. Or your faith has been challenged by insights into the world through education and interaction with other people. Perhaps tragedy has left your faith in ruins. These challenges create dissonance with what you’ve thought to be true. Perhaps you’ve felt you had to give up on faith altogether since you no longer believed certainty was possible. Or perhaps you’ve just never felt like a good Christian because you weren’t as passionate and certain as others seem to be.
If you identify with any of the above, I’m hoping to write several blogs that speak to the interplay of faith and doubt. I’ll use the book, Benefit of the Doubt, by Gregory Boyd, as fodder to kick around these thoughts. As I work through the book, I’ll share highlights with you and hope to generate thoughtful discussion.
So for now, how do you identify with the topic of doubt and faith?
Paul I applaud your openness and transparency in this post. You have courageously opened a large and stinky can of worms. Few Christians I have met during the last 40 years have dared to admit even a slight doubt publicly.
Your post touches on several interrelated topics.
First off there is unfortunately a short, sweet and simple answer to the question of what about those who have not heard. Many have attempted to nail that Jello to a tree. In my opinion many of those replies made a little sense. But none of them fully settled the matter that has plagued people all along. The resolution in my heart is not rooted in reason but your tender topic of faith.
For those who read many books and blogs there is a tendency to seek for certainty. Personally I love engineering because there are hard and fast answers. I look around me and notice the very smart engineers that make the Internet work, the clean water run in the bathroom, the traffic signals that allow collisions to be rare, the airplanes to fly and the highway intersections to have very heavy trucks pass at speed way up in the air while other trucks passed perpendicular to them without either one stopping. Those smart persons used math and science. They could experiment and test assumptions. They do not need faith.
I will join you in publicly admitting that I too have doubts sometimes. Inwardly I dislike doubt. I want to put my doubts into a blender and then into a microwave to make them become certainty. However I have come to accept that doubt comes with the territory of following Jesus daily.
I comfort myself by remembering the biographies of missionaries and theologians that also wrestled with doubt and faith. They needed to grapple with issues that were fuzzy, thorny, irrational, unpopular, confusing and more. By the grace of God and after much prayer with humble Bible study their doubts became faith.
Let me share what has worked for me over the decades. I will just give short summaries knowing that I could add many more words to each item that follows.
I speak candidly with Jesus in my prayers. I tell Him exactly what I am thinking and feeling. I leave the religious flavoring out. I go toe to toe and nose to nose with my Friend. I express my deepest heart. I do not demand or expect instant relief. I do not hide or deny my doubts.
I write in my journal my most intimate thoughts, feelings, objections, worries, fears, upsets and all other in a stream of consciousness way. This is done as much and as often as needed. Sooner than later there is a shift. At first the shift is greater peace of mind. Later it may lead to insights or understandings or just not as much doubting.
I recall what a preacher said that has helped me thousands of times. He said “When you cannot see the hand of God, then just trust His heart.” That takes me back to my closely held theology that God loves me personally all the time. That is a biblical fact because God is love and He cannot change. His heart for me is that of a Good Shepherd no matter what is going on inside of my mind.
At the end of the day biblical Christianity is about a personal relationship with God thanks to the finished work of Christ. This blessed fellowship is possible due to the miracle of rebirth. We are somehow in Christ and He is somehow in us. This is a mystery. We were never promised to have all the answers to all the tough questions. The life of a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ is challenging. Coping with doubts is just one of the many doubts.
There is a very strong drive to analyse every part of life. We tend to seek to organize everything. We want to get everything into boxes with labels. I love lists and mind maps. But truthfully the gospel message includes many layers and levels. What Christ accomplished on the Cross can never be fully understood. The Lord’s Supper and Water Baptism are just reminders of the vast oceans of truth. My tiny mind cannot begin to index all the great things God has done in salvation. So in the light of all that I can more easily let go of my doubts.
In conclusion it is my conviction that the very best antidote for doubt is to turn your eyes on Jesus. Look to the Lord by faith the best you can. That is not easy. Emmanuel knows everything about each of us intimately. And in order to recharge our faith I strongly recommend those grand old hymns that have survived the centuries. They might not be fashionable these days. But God used those lovely standards to help millions of other believers deal with doubts as well as other challenges. Note that Youtube, Spotify, Pandora and others have those hymns available 24 hours a day for free.
Thanks John. I hope you’ll enjoy the follow-up posts interacting with Boyd’s book.
I really don’t know how any thinking person can go through life WITHOUT having doubts. Doubts just mean you’re not accepting everything you’ve been told at face value. Given that many of the things we’re told, and especially many of the things we experience, conflict with each other there is no way to live without doubt other than massive cognitive dissonance.
Very true, Seth. Rational certitude about anything isn’t possible because we’re limited human beings. And yet some folks seem to think that it is.
I find that doubt and passion have both played a massively important roll in my faith. To a degree, I think doubt and questioning what I believe has been one of the biggest contributors to my spiritual growth. There was a time when following my doubt did lead me away from my faith, but my connection to Jesus turned out to be so much bigger than any of the theology I had built to hold it. While my beliefs were in shambles, my relationship with Him, that connection that is spiritual and not intellectual, continued. It eventually led me right back to him, with a faith that is now so much richer because of that journey. I now realize that I never left Him. I was just learning a way of trusting that doesn’t rely on my own theology, worldviews, or understanding. A way to doubt and believe all at once.
Keep up the deep questions, and keep doubting my friend. 🙂
Thank you, Karsten!
Thank you so much. When I sit in church, I feel so alone in my doubts and I don’t feel like the people in the pulpit say all that much about it.
Thanks for sharing Jacqueline. You’re not alone in feeling alone with your doubts. It’s a common culture in churches to sidestep matters of doubt because it’s uncomfortable or feels less than devoted or something…but it shouldn’t be that way! Lifting up a prayer for you now.