As soon as you said it, you wished you hadn’t. Maybe it was the subtle tightening of their body as they avoided eye contact and changed the subject, or their look of confusion as if they didn’t understand what you were asking (or how you could say that), or the immediate rebuttal as if what you said wasn’t even worth considering.
It might have been a statement or a question about something you have believed, or tried to believe:
“Do you ever wonder if…
“Lately, I’ve been confused about…
“Where do you see…in Scripture?
“…doesn’t make sense to me right now.
So what do you do next?
My hope is that you’ll chalk up that experience to what it was: sharing with someone who turned out to be unsafe and that you’ll continue to own your doubt and keep looking until you find a safe person or a safe place to speak about it.
Doubt can make us feel uncomfortable, unsure of where we belong. It can make us feel alone, especially if we hide our doubt and run from the discomfort.
But doubt doesn’t (usually) come with ill-intentions. In fact, doubt comes bearing gifts. Hard gifts, maybe, but gifts none the less. And they can be easier to find if we know what we’re looking for.
Last week we looked at the reasons we tend to fear doubt and theological change. This week we’re going too look at the gifts that come when we engage our doubt. We’ll also share tips for how to wrestle with doubt, yours and others’, well.
5 Gifts of Doubt
Gift #1: Doubt helps us get rid of untrue things.
None of us is right about everything. In order to let go of untrue things, we have to have the courage to doubt them first. Of course that means we’ll end up doubting some true things but, the good news about doubting true things, is that once we’ve walked through the doubt and determined they’re actually true we can hold them with more confident conviction.
Doubt doesn’t have to lead to ditching our faith, it can drive us deeper.
Gift #2 Doubt helps us to better understand what we believe.
When doubt initiates exploration we not only shake off untrue things, we get a better understanding of what we believe and why.
Gift #3 Doubt can help us create a more authentic relationship with God.
In an effort to help their children be themselves, parents are fond of telling them that if they’re friends don’t accept them for who they are, they weren’t really friends in the first place. When we are honest with God about our doubts and questions we can have a more authentic relationship with him than if we pretend everything is okay. Romans 5: 6-8 reminds us that God loved us enough to save us when we were dishonest sinners, certainly he doesn’t love us less when we’re believers with honest questions.
Gift #4 Walking through doubt can make you less anxious about walking through doubt.
I believe doubt is an unavoidable part of the Christian life. Walking through doubt can teach us that walking through doubt doesn’t have to terrify us or crush us. It’s often uncomfortable, but not dangerous.
When I moved to Mongolia, I learned to be flexible. I used to love punctuality. Now I no longer expect people to show up “on time” or have expectations as to when a meeting should end. My favorite restaurant doesn’t have my favorite dish? Oh well, I get something else. The store I wanted to go to is inexplicably closed at 2:45 in the afternoon on a Tuesday? Oh, well, I’ll go somewhere else instead.
Being forced to be flexible has made me more flexible and more comfortable with being flexible. Doubt can work the same way.
Gift #5 Walking through doubt can give you more grace for other people who are doubting.
One of my most sacred roles in college ministry was giving students a safe place to doubt. Allowing them to say what they’re thinking and walking with them to the other side. Helping them see that not everything they believed was true, but that some of it was. Asking questions to expose their doubts and fears. Telling them it was okay not to have all the answers right now. Showing them an example of what living without everything tied up neatly in a bow looks like. This, I’m convinced, helps people to survive a season of doubt with their faith intact…a transformed faith, for sure, but deeper, truer faith.
Tips for Dealing with Your Own Doubt
People tend to deal with doubt one of two ways: addressing it or avoiding it. If you avoid it too long, it usually bottles up and explodes making it an agent of destruction rather than an agent of refining. Addressing it doesn’t always feel good in the moment, and doesn’t guarantee you’ll get through it unscathed, but it’s the path to life.
Here’s how you can wrestle well through doubt:
- Avoid people who are responding out of fear to your questions and doubts.
- Avoid people who think everyone who doesn’t believe the same thing as them is an idiot. You might be drawn to their certainty but, ultimately, it won’t be helpful for you.
- Find people to talk too who will point you to Scripture and will help you understand it, not just tell you what you’re supposed to believe.
- Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and tell him exactly what you’re thinking and feeling; he can handle it.
- It’s easy to find stories online of people who have doubted their faith then rejected it. We need to tell more stories of people who have doubted their faith (or parts of it) and come through with their faith intact, even if it significantly changed in the process.
Tips for Dealing with Others’ Doubt
- In general, don’t be a jerk toward others who believe differently than you (think: Facebook posts & comments, links you share, etc.). It makes it unsafe for people within your sphere of influence to talk with you about their doubts, or maybe to talk to anyone about their doubts because they don’t want to be judged by someone like you.
- Don’t assume doubt is the same as rejection. Some people have to fully try on ideas before they can wholeheartedly accept or reject them.
- Ask good questions, point them back to the Bible. Keep their eyes on Jesus, not a particular denomination or creed. I’d rather have a friend become a Baptist than reject the faith completely. I’d rather have someone be a complementarian than an atheist (though I love my atheist friends too!)
- Don’t expect them to easily accept answers you wrestled to find.
- Remember that doubting doctrine is not the same as doubting God.
- It’s not about you or your ability to convince them. It’s about you walking with them and pointing them to Jesus.
In case you need it, I give you permission to doubt. To say what you’re really thinking. To ask, “Is God really like that? Did he really say that? How could he be silent when that happened?!”
In fact, maybe you need to stop reading and start journaling your doubts. You don’t have to post them on social media, but there is power in writing them, naming them, being honest with yourself.
There are days when I think the idea of a God who created, sustains, and directs the earth is madness. Especially on days when children suffer and grandparents die. On days when cancer kills and human commit selfish and violent acts against each other. On days when the river is full of garbage and the air is so polluted it tastes bad. On days when it doesn’t seem like the people I love can break the generational poverty they’ve been born into and government officials are getting rich off of corruption and bribes. There are days I wonder if women should be pastors (I’m one of them) and if slavery is biblical (I’m sure it’s 100% against the heart of God but the Bible does have a relatively pro-slavery message). There are days when the resurrection (Jesus’ or mine) seems absurd.
I’m rarely 100% certain of anything.
I don’t revel in doubt but I’m not longer afraid of it.
I accept the gifts doubt offers. I’m not certain, but I’m certain enough to yield.
And most days, that’s enough to keep going.