The Benefit of Doubt
Like a church bell on a clear winter night, it is in the crisp darkness of doubt that God’s voice carries farther and more clearly.
Before You Read
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No one I know likes to be in a state of doubt. Doubt is destabilizing and we do whatever we can to avoid it. This is all the more true when it comes to matters of faith. Doubt and faith rule each other out. It is one or the other. And if you are in a state of doubt, your job is to get rid of it.
Doubt is an assault on faith. We know this because doubts lead to such destructive emotions as fear, depression, anger, irritability, and stress.
Clearly, God does not want us to doubt. Right?
There is a benefit of doubt. Doubt is a gift of God to move us from trusting ourselves to trusting him.
Doubt forces us to examine what we believe about God—and this can be unsettling. What we thought was our “faith in God” sometimes winds up being little more than faith in ourselves—our own ability to grasp God, to possess him our way, to have him figured out.
Doubt is God’s way of tearing down the private fantasy we have constructed about him—where what we think about God is without further need of reflection, no longer open to growth. Doubt does not mean that God is “dying” for us. Doubt signals that we are beginning to die to ourselves, and that can be very painful—dying usually is.
In the words of some theologians, doubt helps tear down the idols we have constructed in making God into our own image. Or, to borrow a term from psychology, doubt helps us see the bankruptcy of our false self, which is that self we have made up to cope with the confusion of life, to put all things—even God—“in order.” Doubt backs us into a corner and forces us to look beyond the dysfunction of our false selves, of the “idols of our heart,” toward a greater intimacy with God where he is in control, not we.
Do not resist doubt but patiently and honestly pass through it. Welcome it as a gift. Ask God what he might be teaching you about him, and about yourself.
You are not alone. Read the Psalms of lament where doubt is a plaguing reality. Read Ecclesiastes where Qoheleth’s entire universe of meaning is crumbling before him and he shakes his fist at God himself. Read about Job, whose personal narrative is being erased and rewritten before his eyes.
These three biblical examples are not there to warn us but instead to model for us what this process of destabilization and disorientation can look like. Core-shaking doubt is a normal part of the spiritual life. Passing through these times—not around them—leads to greater spiritual depth and intimacy with God.
The 16th century mystic theologian John of the Cross spoke famously of the “dark night of the soul.” This dark night is the sense of painful alienation and distance from God that causes much distress, anxiety, and depression in the believer. Sooner or later all Christians experience this state, and when they do some feel like giving up. Since God feels so far away, since they have lost their sense of belonging to God in that old familiar way, they conclude that they no longer have faith. And so they despair even more.
But like a church bell on a clear winter night, it is in the crisp darkness of doubt that God’s voice carries farther and more clearly. St. John’s great insight is that this dark night is a special sign of God’s presence, where our false sense of comfort is being stripped away and we are left naked before God and asked simply to trust. Then we begin to see that “alienation from God” was nothing of the sort. The dark night is God telling to us to let go of the small version of God we have been carrying around and to prepare for something deeper.
Rachel Held Evans says it well: “In the end, it was doubt that saved my faith.”1 She reminds us that the Christian life is a journey: we must learn to “live in the questions.” We will then learn to expect from God not the promise of ready answers, but the promise to move us out of our carefully crafted zones of comfort to a better place.
For some, thinking through the issues of evolution and Christianity trigger feelings of doubt. For others the issues are very different. But the point is the same. Something enters your life that you did not expect, and do not particularly welcome. You are so racked with doubt that you do not know how you can take another step, or why you should even bother at all. That is not the end of faith. That is when the journey can begin in earnest.
Being a Christian does not mean being certain of everything all the time. Doubt is a normal and important part of the Christian life. When God seems most absent, it may be then that he is speaking to you most clearly. It is then that you realize that your faith is not a fortress but a journey, and God means to take you “further up and further in.”
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