“Show me a man who says that he has never been beset by doubt,” says one of the characters in my novel Hearts Set Free, “and I will show you a liar.”
We’re often reluctant to admit our religious doubts, and it’s not hard to understand why. How will people look at us? After all, when I was an atheist, I never admitted to my friends that I sometimes questioned my belief in the ultimate meaninglessness of life, fearful of being mocked as a weak-minded sentimentalist!
We may not even want to acknowledge our doubts to ourselves. If I question one aspect of my faith, perhaps that could lead to the entire edifice collapsing—and then where will I be? And for some, the implications of doubt might seem too terrible. For example, another character in Hearts Set Free wonders what’s wrong with himself:
“Why couldn’t he sustain the intensity of belief, or simply have his friend’s calm certainty and trust in God? Perhaps he simply wasn’t one of the elect. Had God created him for the express purpose of being damned?”
Precisely because of its universality—and because it can seem a crisis in our lives—there are no end of books, essays, and pithy quotes that encourage us not to be discouraged by doubt. Here are the words of the Bishop of Rome:
“We do not need to be afraid of questions and doubts, because they are the beginning of a path of knowledge and going deeper; one who does not ask questions cannot progress either in knowledge or in faith.”
Indeed! And yet, how often are such thoughts expressed in the churches we attend? Are the ambiguities and challenges of some verses acknowledged, or is the emphasis on pat answers to profound and sometimes disturbing questions?
Bill Tammeus, former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, takes on this subject in his excellent book, The Value of Doubt, which has an illuminating subtitle: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith:
“True faith cannot survive in an atmosphere in which answers are unquestioned…The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certitude. Doubt creates the space in which faith may live. Certitude kills faith. It turns faith into a rigid caricature of itself…”
“The opposite of faith is certitude” – is Tammeus simply trying to be provocative? I think not. What he’s saying makes all the sense in the world if we think of faith as a process, a journey—much the way we think of sanctification!—rather than something we’re simply supposed to possess, ready-made, from the moment of baptism on.
That it’s a difficult—even torturous—journey, but one that may be necessary to achieve deeper faith, is best articulated in these two passages from the 19th-century Scottish novelist and minister George MacDonald and the 20th-century American novelist Flannery O’Connor:
“A man may be haunted with doubts, and only grow thereby in faith. Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to rouse the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be understood…Doubt must precede every deeper assurance.”
“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”
O’Connor’s words are more controversial than MacDonald’s, and I’m sure offensive to some. After all, didn’t the Lord tell us that we must be like little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Yes, but there is a distinction between “childish” and “childlike,” and I believe O’Connor is referring, however unkindly, to the former. Sometimes a lack of doubt may simply reflect an unthinking acceptance—a shallow faith that can be shattered by tragic events. “Woe to him who has never wrestled with doubt, when the greater tests come,” I wrote in Hearts Set Free. “But if we face doubt honestly and bravely, our faith will emerge all the stronger.”
Wrestling with the Messengers of the Living One
Still, doubt can bring us to the very precipice of unbelief. Nowhere is this felt more poignantly than when some passage in Scripture, or some doctrine we’re told we must believe, cannot be reconciled in our minds with a good and loving God.
“Did God really command the slaughter of Canaanite women and children?” one of my characters muses. “Did it warm His heart when the Psalmist prayed for Babylonian babies to have their brains dashed out against the rocks?”
But surely these are the sort of things that we are meant to wrestle with, just as Jacob wrestled with the angel, was wounded, and only then received a blessing from God. What price would we not pay to come to a better understanding of God, that we might fulfill the commandment to love Him with all our heart, and strength, and soul, and mind?
Ah, but this is dangerous, some might say. Perhaps our doubts stem from a refusal to submit our will to His, from the desire to have the God we want rather than the One who really is. And yet, when we reject the God preached in some churches, it may not be because we want to make Him over in our image, but precisely because we are made in His. If we question doctrine and interpretations of Scripture that seem to slander God’s holy name, our doubt has been motivated by our love for Him; that is holy doubt, even if it should turn out to have been misguided. Here are the words of George MacDonald on this matter:
“Whatever seems to me darkness, that I will not believe of my God. If I should mistake, and call that darkness which is light, will He not reveal the matter to me, setting it in the light lightest every man, showing me that I saw but the husk of the thing, not the kernel? …He will not let it hurt me to mistake the light for darkness, while I take not the darkness for light. The one comes from blindness of the intellect, the other from blindness of heart and will. I love the light, and will not believe at the word of any man, that that which seems to me darkness is in God.”
If I wrestle with such doubts out of an earnest and urgent desire to know Him, one of three things will surely happen. I will either
—come to understand and accept what at first caused me to doubt;
—move on to a new way of thinking that resolves the problem; or,
—accept that not everything can be understood at my current stage of development, and resolve to set the problem aside and simply trust in His lovingkindness.
Each of these outcomes results in a deeper faith—perhaps, in some ways, the third most of all! We may, like Job, desire to understand everything that perplexes us; but God gives us what we need, not necessarily what we want. In The Value of Doubt, Tammeus quotes N.T. Wright: “With God…the first and most important point [is] not to understand him but to trust him.” He gives us enough understanding to trust in Him; and that very trusting and seeking after Him builds faith. I think of “understanding” as “seeing,” and take comfort that “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe” (John 20:29).
George MacDonald’s advice to those mired in doubt over some hard doctrine or perplexing passage in Scripture has greatly influenced me: obey the words of the Lord that you do understand, and deeper understanding will follow. That is, after all, just what Jesus tells us in these verses from the fourth Gospel:
“Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.”
“If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Obedience first; understanding will follow. And consider this command:
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”
I hear the echo of that verse in these words of Flannery O’Connor:
“It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.”
But what does this mean in the context of seeking understanding and the resolution of our doubts? That the scales will fall from our eyes and we’ll have an intellectual understanding of the doctrine or passage in question?
Perhaps in some cases; but my experience is that the answers to our doubts tends to come in a way that transcends the intellect. In one of his blogs, Steve Pankey, rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky, considers the apostle whose name has become synonymous with doubt. Although some prominent translations, such as the NIV, have Jesus telling Thomas “Stop doubting and believe,” the ESV and others more properly translate the Greek as “Do not disbelieve, but believe.” This interests me because of what Pankey writes next:
“See, despite what millions of sermons by thousands of preachers have told you, doubting Thomas didn’t doubt, but rather he was a-believing because in John’s Gospel, belief isn’t about an intellectual assent to some list of facts, but instead, belief is about a relationship. When Jesus died on the cross, so too did his relationship with Thomas. Thomas believed Jesus, he gave him his heart and his hope, and that belief couldn’t live beyond the grave. Unless, that is, Jesus lived beyond the grave, and that is so hard to fathom that Thomas wanted proof before he handed his heart over to be burned again.” [emphasis added]
What we need more than intellectual understanding, more than anything else, is relationship with God. All the questions that Job had were silenced simply by the presence of the Living One. It was enough.
The top of this page features the anguished plea by the father of a demon-possessed son, from Mark 9:24. Out of an intensity of love, a father cries out for more faith. Timothy Larsen, Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, is onto something when he recalls 1Corinthians 13 in writing, “Maybe the opposite of doubt is not faith, but love” (George MacDonald in the Age of Miracles).
What keeps our faith from being a mere intellectual construct, devoid of substance? Only love, which Paul tells us is greater even than faith and hope! Love, expressed in words and actions, is the expression of the Holy Spirit within us, the very essence of our relationship with the Lord, and is, in the end, the most meaningful answer to doubt.