We’ve heard them many times before: stories of long-standing self-proclaimed Christians renouncing their faith, no longer identifying themselves as Christian.
I don’t pretend to understand why this seems to be prevalent, and I’m sure there are many, multifaceted reasons why an individual would turn their back on Christianity, but I wonder if one possible factor falls on the church’s shoulders: we don’t tend to make room for doubt.
A while back I listened to a podcast where a woman who had once called herself a Christian was explaining her reasons for leaving the faith. There were multiple factors she mentioned and I’m sure there are others she’s probably not even aware of. But one thing she mentioned stuck out to me more than the rest: she had felt there was no safe place for her in the church to express her doubt and wrestle with it honestly.
I don’t know her life and won’t make conjectures, but I immediately wondered, why is it so hard to talk about doubt? Why do we in the church so often view it as the antithesis of faith?
By refraining from speaking about doubt (or any topic), we make it that much more significant, unintentionally spreading the message that doubt is not okay and you should not be struggling with it.
We don’t talk about it because we don’t recognize it, and yet, doubt is closely knit to so many of our sufferings and sins. Aside from scrupulosity, many Christians experience doubt but struggle to find a safe place in the church where they can engage with it. The man who shares that he’s tired and worn down from all the suffering in the world; he expresses doubt, struggling to find hope in the darkness. The woman who asks for prayer that the Lord will direct her steps and give her peace about the future; she expresses doubt. If we listen, there is doubt expressed in the burdens of those around us, even if it never makes it into their language.
Those of us with scrupulosity—or even anyone for whom doubt is a constant—can so easily feel like we are stranded on the Island of Doubt alone, looking longingly at the Continent of Faith where every other Christian seems to rest. When we share our doubt with others, we are met with admonishments to have faith, take heart, and trust Jesus, as though our doubt is an indicator of unbelief. This can just aggravate the struggle for those of us whose default it is to view our doubt as the enemy, as many of us do who struggle with scrupulosity and have an obsessive desire for certainty. As it is, I often fear that my doubt means I have a smaller, weaker faith that is in immediate danger of extinguishing, so this mindset and message just confirm that.
We often equate doubt with outright unbelief. I often hear unhelpful solutions for how to deal with it, all which seem to scream, “Have more faith!” I recently read an article where the author described doubt as “a faith crisis.” I constantly feel that I am in crisis-mode, at any moment liable to backslide and turn away completely. Words like these don’t help, but only confirm that doubt is a crisis and I need to do everything I can to get rid of it.
But what if God doesn’t want us to try to get rid of doubt, but to seek him in the midst of it?
What if doubt is a normal part of the Christian life in a fallen world with fallen minds, hearts, and bodies? It isn’t a desirable thing, of course; but perhaps it’s not the antithesis to faith, something to be gotten rid of at all costs. There is a difference between an active anti-faith attitude that is embittered and against God, and a faith that is weak, trembling, but ultimately oriented toward God. The Lord does not treat doubt as high-handed sin; he will not quench the faintly burning wick or break the bruised reed.
Perhaps doubt is a larger part of our day-to-day; perhaps we struggle with a more pathological doubt than others. But does that mean we have weaker faith? Does it take more faith to do the opposite of what our feelings, thoughts, and everything within us is screaming that we do? Or does it take more faith to do that same thing with a sense of calm peacefulness and trust? I’m inclined to think it’s the former.
But my point isn’t to construct a hierarchy of faith; that’s not helpful, and I don’t believe the Lord views us in terms of our amount of faith. There are times when God does give us peace, and that’s great. It’s a gift from him. But he doesn’t always give this. I’m only saying that doubt does not mean lack of faith, or a lesser faith.
No one has complete certainty, even those who’d say they don’t struggle with doubt. All faith must have some doubt. Actually, doubt is often an indicator that faith already exists. You don’t have to have faith in the sun if it’s staring you in the face. Faith is more profound in the dead of night, when you feel no warmth and doubt if the sun even exists anymore, yet you take the next right step in faith that it will rise again.
I often think of the man in Mark 9 who expresses both faith and doubt: “I believe; help my unbelief!” Even his expression of doubt is pointed toward the Lord, which is itself, paradoxically, faith.
I also think of David in Psalm 42: “Why are you cast down, O my soul? … Hope in God; for I shall again praise him.” He does not express his current trust; rather, he says that he will again hope, even if it’s not now. Maybe faith is taking the next step while hoping (however timidly) in God’s goodness when it feels like all your faith is gone.
Here’s the thing: God’s grace is not dependent on our perfect faith. It wouldn’t be grace if we had to earn it with doubtless faith, full conviction, and absolute certainty. He requires merely that we turn to him, to receive his grace in our deficiency. We may turn and still wonder, “Do I have enough faith?” Yet turning is an act of faith, even if the size of a mustard seed.
I was saddened to hear of this woman who had left the faith, but given her reason, I wasn’t too surprised. She had no safe place to express and battle her doubts, so she had to find it outside the church and outside of God himself. If not for a community of people who have encouraged me that God isn’t threatened by my doubts, and that I can run to Jesus in the midst of my doubt, I might very well have followed in this woman’s steps.
Let’s make space in the church for dark seasons of intense doubt. Let’s make it a normal part of the Christian life (because it is), and not assume it’s because the struggler is about to walk away. Let’s not expend all our energy and time to get rid of our doubt, or encourage others to do the same. Instead let’s learn how to live faithfully with doubt and to seek God in this paradox.
If you struggle with doubt, turn to Jesus today. Cry out to him in your lack of faith.
That is faith. Its flame may be weak, small, insufficient, almost nonexistent. But God requires nothing more.