In recognition of Father’s Day, I spoke about an imperfect father with an imperfect faith. The father’s son had been afflicted by an unclean spirit since birth, and he was at his wit’s end. He comes to Jesus asking for help, and Jesus responds by telling him to have faith. The father’s response is a study in contrasts – “I believe. Help my unbelief!”
Faith + doubt. Yes, they can coexist. No, doubt doesn’t mean the end of the world or apostasy. I think that doubt and unbelief are different in fact. Unbelief is a sign of rebellion, an unwillingness to submit to the rightful rule/reign of God. Doubt is a sign of reality. It’s trying to live faithfully before an invisible God in the complexity of the world. Unbelief is arrogant. Doubt is humble.
Often though, I find that Christians are so afraid of doubt. Because they equate it with unbelief, both are intolerable and reason for investigation. I remember as a high schooler being dismissed because I had doubts about the efficacy of prayer. I wasn’t rejected…so long as I didn’t keep raising doubts. When we see doubt as abnormal, we cannot tolerate doubt.
Phillip Yancey’s book, Reaching for the Invisible God, has been so comforting to me. The beginning of the book talks about the place of doubt in faith. While cautioning that doubt can be toxic if not properly examined, he reminds me that doubt is a result of trying to live out faith in the world. My biggest takeaways from him:
- Doubt can be the result of living faith. When we live in our comfortable bubbles, then we don’t raise questions. We don’t ask, “what if?” When we aren’t confronted with new questions (or anything new, for that matter), we won’t have doubt. When we take seriously the call to risky obedience in pursuing Jesus, we will experience new situations, new challenges, and the doubt that comes with it.
- Doubt must be approached with humility. We must recognize that we don’t have all the answers, and that some things are truly beyond us. I was comforted to remember that mystery is what makes faith so real.
- Not all doubt is the same. There is intellectual doubt (questions about doctrine, theodicy, etc.); willful doubt (“Did God really say…?”; and situational doubt (will God come through? Can he be trusted?) I’m sure there’s more categories than even those, but it’s helpful to remember that different doubts require different handling.
- Doubt can be nourishing when spoken and handled in community. I feel sorry for those who have to deal with their doubt in isolation. Doubt can lead to deeper faith when we have doubt companions who continue to love us and point us to God even when we cannot see (or don’t want to see).
The last one hits me especially hard. How can we be a community that is ok with doubt? A community that doesn’t panic, doesn’t raise an Inquisition, but rather patiently walks with each other because we know that God has compassion and patience towards us?
Isn’t it reassuring to know that God doesn’t get defensive or insecure because we have questions or doubts? That he doesn’t put us on a prescribed curriculum of apologetics or suffering in order to make us come around? No, he gives us kindness, mercy, and a constant invitation to seek him and find.
I’m about to embark on my own “seek and find” leg. This week marks the beginning of a 4-week sabbatical during which my family and I will get some much-anticipated time to regroup, rest, play, and reflect on the journey thus far. We’re taking the time away from the church as we look toward stepping into the lead pastor position at my church when I return. I anticipate that God will help Sarah and me deal with some of our doubts: over our abilities, his sufficiency, what we need, how this will all go down, and I’m sure much more that I haven’t even articulated yet.
It’s my prayer that during the four weeks, God will also do his work in the church I love, granting the security for doubts to be spoken and the mercy for doubts to lead to deeper faith. I’m looking forward to coming back and living life with the people of God, a life filled with faith and doubt as we take bold steps to follow Jesus into whatever may come.