Doubt is inevitable, and it just never goes away.
And doubt is present in every one of us, too. Some of us know its presence all too well, and it dreadfully feels like we’re gazing helplessly into the high beams of a Mac-truck, driving at full speed towards us, and we’re just fearfully awaiting its impact. But some of us, on the other hand, don’t even notice it’s there–because unbeknownst to us, it is hiding deftly and quietly in our blind spots–and all it might take is a mindless turn of the wheel to realize its frightening presence upon us.
No matter who you are, doubt subtly besets even some of our strongest beliefs, and we might not even realize it until its brought into the light with the onset of unforeseeable pain or unexpected questions. Doubt might be obvious for you right now in your present circumstance, or maybe you’ll notice it more in the probably near future when you’re confronted with probing questions about a certain tragedy or confounded with intellectual assertions from a smart skeptic.
What’s striking though, is that most(!) of the greatest leaders in the Bible experienced life-long bouts of intense, intense doubt. Abraham. Moses. Joseph. David. Paul.
Abraham, in particular, arguably tops the list for underg0ing the most extreme tests and seasons of doubt. Yet, he’s renowned as a man of great faith for striving–through failure again and again–to understand and to follow and to trust in the promises of God. Even more surprising is that this same, doubt-laden, trust-failing Abraham is notably called ‘Father of Faith.’ Why? Because 3 of today’s major world religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) all stem from the base of his personal story of faith and doubt. And it was precisely because he suffered so much doubt–and not in spite of suffering much doubt–that he became known as the Father of Faith.
In other words, we don’t become spiritual giants because we’ve never doubted. We become spiritual giants for how we’ve handled doubt over the course of our lives. So if you’ve never doubted, it probably means that you’ve never been confronted with contrary points of view and/or strong doses of personal tragedy. Regardless, if the Father of Faith was constantly stricken with doubt, we should not be shocked when our faith is rattled with doubt from time to time, too.
Which leads us to main question. Because doubt is inevitable, how should we deal with doubt when it comes?
There’s typically two different, traditional approaches for how to deal with doubt: the conservative approach and the liberal approach. But both seem like wrong ways of dealing with doubt. Here’s what I mean:
The Conservative mind ultimately thinks of doubt as a complete evil and as a spiritual failure. It approaches doubt as something to be ashamed of and something to be kept secret. So, people bottle it in–and hardly get better. The problem with this approach is that when you create a church culture like this, you are telling the world that you cannot be emotionally or intellectually authentic while at the same time being a Christian. Naturally, people in these types of churches feel so frightened and self-condemned by doubt that they never want to voice their doubts–because that would mean they wouldn’t be accepted and/or couldn’t get any answers anyways.
So what would happen if Abraham had ascribed to the conservative approach and said accordingly, “Of course! I don’t have any doubt!” (even though he clearly did)? If he did that, we would never be able to relate to him. Also, had he not struggled with doubt, and he wouldn’t have struggled through the hard questions that would have enabled him to know God in deeper ways. Certainly, Abraham wouldn’t have grown into the formidable spiritual leader that God wanted to shape him to be. The same thing will happen to us, too, if we suppress our doubts out of fear or shamefulness. A conservative approach to doubt deals with doubt by sweeping it under the proverbial rug. Their approach screams, “let’s save face for the sake of looking put-together, while never addressing the real problem.” It just doesn’t work.
The Liberal mind, on the other hand, thinks that doubt is intellectually sophisticated and emotionally mature. This view says doubt is something to be embraced and pursued in itself. It urges you to always be in doubt about everything—to be skeptical, to be cynical, and to have unresolved, eternal doubt about every aspect of life.
Yet, the reality is that it’s simply impossible to be dubious about everything. For example, if you say that you can doubt everything, you’re actually giving yourself an exemption that isn’t fair. Meaning, you can’t doubt everything, and at the same time, doubt your own skepticism about everything. If you refuse to doubt your own doubt itself, you aren’t being consistent in your own philosophy–you’re just picking and choosing. You just can’t be cynical about everything without being cynical about your own cynicism. In order to be consistent with your beliefs, you must hold yourself accountable to doubt your doubts as much as you doubt everything else. Which means, inevitably so, that you have to at least be open to the possibility of knowing something. Beneath the veneer of cynicism is sometimes a sense of fear: you don’t want to doubt your own cynicism, making yourself vulnerable to the possibility that there is something you can know, and that you might be wrong after all.
The liberal mind takes the far opposite approach of the conservative approach, yet ironically provides as much resolution and comfort as the conservative approach does: you’re right, zero. The liberal approach says, “There is no real knowledge anyways”–being equally unsympathetic to your questions and hurt as the conservative approach.
Indeed, these two approaches are dead ends, but thankfully, they are not the only approaches. There is a third approach, which the God of the Bible gives.
This third approach, Christianity, however, displays a surprisingly balanced approach for how to deal with doubt, and it does so by equally critiquing the coldness of conservatism and the fancifulness of liberalism.
Take for example, Abraham once more. Throughout his entire life, he consistently doubts God’s promises and pitifully pleads time and time again, “But…how can I really, really, actually know…?”
And what does God say in response to Abraham each time? Does God take on the demeanor of a conservative drill sergeant and say, “How dare you question me! Pitiful!”—No, never. Or does God take on the demeanor of hippie professor and say, “Well, yeah, that’s the way it is. Groovy. Embrace doubt as ultimate reality, you’ll never know.”—No, God doesn’t respond that way, either. On the one hand, God does not condemn doubt, and on the other hand, he challenges doubt.
And it’s amazingly similar to the interaction between the resurrected Jesus and Thomas, too. Thomas says, “I won’t believe unless I see the nail prints.” Does Jesus take the conservative beat-down methodology or the psychedelic liberal approach? Neither. Jesus gave Thomas what he asked for. If doubting was a sinful thing to do, then why did Jesus give Thomas what he asked for? And yet after showing Thomas the nail prints, Jesus says, “Now stop doubting and believe.” Jesus didn’t give Thomas every answer, but he did give him the sufficient ones.
There’s a fascinating balance in Christianity whereby doubt is never encouraged, but doubters are always completely welcomed and addressed. Ultimately, Christianity slices through the spectrum of conservatism and liberalism, and presents a unique and better way to deal with doubt altogether.
When you express doubt and say, “My faith is weak!” God does not say, “How dare you!” or “This is just the way it is!” God says, “This is the way to give you a masterful life. I will give you more faith, and I will grow you.” God doesn’t do the liberal thing and say, “That’s fine, it’s great that you doubt;” and God doesn’t do the conservative thing either and say, “How dare you doubt!” Instead, he says, “Doubters are welcome, because honest admissions of weakness, difficulty, and struggle is the way you grow.”
NOTE: The following blog is largely redacted, reformatted, and reworded (and some parts are indeed word-for-word) from Timothy Keller’s sermon Real Confidence and the Blazing Torch, which is part of his sermons series called, “The Gospel According To Abraham.” Check it out here if you are interested.